Saturday, December 5, 2009

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part I)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are four long ones.

Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison

Two diametrically opposed camps have formed in response to this compilation. One wishes it had been two discs and included all of Harrison’s best work (his Traveling Wilburys songs included) and that the songs had been sequenced less haphazardly, both to reflect the trajectory of Harrison’s development (or at least his career) and to make for a less sonically jarring listening experience. The other camp says nuts to such cavils: Harrison’s catalog oozes greatness no matter how you slice it, and to refuse to enjoy nineteen examples from it simply because they’re not sensibly sequenced or the nineteen one would have preferred is as petty as Harrison’s Wilbury partner Tom.

What neither camp has mentioned is the effect of eleven of this collection’s seventy-eight minutes being taken up by Harrison-sung Beatles songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun”) from the Concert for Bangladesh. Now, how many Beatles songs are on The John Lennon Collection or Paul McCartney’s Wingspan? None. Why? Because no one needs reminding that Lennon and McCartney were in the Beatles and because Lennon and Mcartney had enough fab solo material not to need Fab padding.

No one needs reminding that Harrison was a Beatle either (especially not with both “All Those Years Ago,” his Lennon tribute, and “When We Was Fab,” his Beatles tribute, on Let It Roll). So including the Bangladesh cuts while leaving off actual Harrison hits such as “Crackerbox Palace,” “This Song,” and “Love Comes to Everyone” implicitly diminishes his solo-artist stature.

The Bangladesh cuts also look like bait intended to convince owners of The Best of George Harrison (1976) and Best of Dark Horse 1976-1989 (1989) that they need Let It Roll too. But many Harrison fans had hoped Let It Roll would be was the single-disc Harrison best-of to end all single-disc Harrison best-ofs. Instead, its mix of hits, misses, redundancies, and obscurities makes it seem more like a teaser for a forthcoming box set.

Let It Roll does provide one useful service: It rescues 1985’s “I Don’t Want to Do It,” a Bob Dylan cover and one of Harrison’s finest singles, from the Porky’s Revenge soundtrack. And, as one might expect from an album containing “My Sweet Lord,” “Give Me Love,” and “What Is Life,” the tunefulness seldom lets up. But it needn’t have let up at all. Next time, somebody please get this right.

The Woodstock Experience

Amid the spate of fortieth-anniversary Woodstock product, these five two-disc sets by acts who performed that long-ago weekend at Yasgur’s farm stand out. Listing at $19.98 apiece, each one comes with an original, and in most cases classic, 1969 studio album (no big deal, as those albums are already available separately), original packaging and a poster (a medium-sized deal), and a live disc containing that act’s entire Woodstock set (a big deal indeed, as the various Woodstock soundtracks contain only excerpts).

The five acts are, not surprisingly, those to whose catalogs Sony has access. They’re also acts who were at or near their respective peaks at the time. So besides strong studio albums (Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, Santana’s Santana, Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand!, Johnny Winter’s Johnny Winter), one gets live albums that both hold up on their own and function as a looser, more stoned mirror image.

But the set to get if you’re only getting one is Jefferson Airplane’s. Comprising Volunteers, which keeps getting better with age, and a live set including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” it’s almost enough to erase the memory of the Airplane’s eventual morphing into Starship.

Elvis 75--Good Rockin’ Tonight

You remember Elvis Presley. He was the Michael Jackson of your parents’ (and your grandparents’) generation, except it was rock’n’roll and not pop of which Elvis was king, A-list actresses and not pre-pubescent boys he was accused of bedding). He was a performer so talented he couldn’t help shifting pop-cultural paradigms every time he lifted his voice in song or swiveled his hips in actual or simulated heat, a one-man entertainment Mount Rushmore, replete with the requisite four faces (mid-to-late-’50s hillbilly-rebel Elvis, early-to-mid-’60s Hollywood-cornball Elvis, mid-to-late-’60s comeback-Vegas Elvis; early-to-mid-’70s increasingly stoned-and-corpulent Elvis).

Yep, that Elvis, and in case you couldn’t tell from the title of the latest installment in the cottage industry that Elvis box sets have become, the King would’ve turned seventy-five in 2010 if he hadn’t taken all of his daily drugs in a single dose thirty-three years before. So the Elvis 75 half of the title makes sense; the Good Rockin’ Tonight part, however, could use some tweaking. While there is plenty of good rockin’ to be found among the one hundred songs (on four discs), there’s some of the richest gospel, soul, and reified schmaltz ever committed to tape as well.

Speaking of the one hundred songs, it seems at first that there could’ve and should’ve been a dozen more. Obviously, the compilers liked the “one hundred” concept, but with forty-two minutes of total unused disc space, one wonders why such under-anthologized Presley highlights as (in no particular order) “(You‘re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” “Moody Blue,” and “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” (an obscure but definitely “good rockin’” mid-’seventies gospel number) to name just three.

Then you realize that it’s hard to name many more than just three. Memorable alternate versions of two tracks that are included come to mind (the un-remixed “A Little Less Conversation,” that live “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in which he spends half the song cracking up), and maybe a few judiciously selected minutes from Having Fun wth Elvis on Stage.

So maybe one hundred songs is just right. Certainly, it would be hard to improve on Discs 1, 2, and 3--which hit every highlight of the Sun years, the pre-Army years, and the post-comeback Memphis years. What’s surprising is Disc 4. Even with financial, physical, and emotional disaster looming on the horizon, the King could still, on a good night, out-sing, and often out-rock, any other mortal entertainer.


Call it a sign of the times, but from the chaos leading up to 1998’s Crystal Ball (which was pressed only after 50,000 fans had “requested” it then mailed to them after it became available in stores) or the disorder leading up to 2007’s Planet Earth (which Sony refused to distribute in U.K. music stores after a prominent U.K. newspaper included pre-release free copies in its Sunday edition), Prince has been making news for over a decade now more for the way he releases music than for the music itself. And Lotusflow3r, the first album by a major talent to be sold exclusively at Target, is no exception.

Priced at a surprisingly wallet-friendly $11.99 (or about the price of a McDonald’s dollar-menu double date) it’s really two Prince albums (Lotusflow3r and MPLSoUND) with Elixer, the debut of Prince’s latest butter-melting protégé Bria Valente, thrown in. Not that Elixer is a throwaway. “Everytime,” the mid-tempo love song that pops up halfway through, may be the most gorgeous composition to which Prince has ever affixed any of his many names, diffusing a radiance that could almost make one swear the other nine songs aren’t really just more of the high-gloss, soft-core discotheque fodder that Prince has long had his many ladies in waiting eating from his hand.

In fact, with the exception of the “Crimson and Clover” cover on Lotusflow3r (and maybe “Colonized Mind,” Prince’s latest shout-out to God), “Everytime” is more show-stopping in its luminous simplicity than any of the new Prince recordings on the other two discs are in their kaleidoscopic funktionality. The problem isn’t that he no longer has talent out the wazoo but that he apparently has more wazoos than most mortal listeners have ears.

Whereas the prolific output of Elvis Costello or Ani DiFranco often looks like headlong self-indulgence and Bob Dylan’s, Neil Young’s, and Van Morrison’s like roads less travelled, Prince’s voluminous output, for all its hyperkinesis, suggests a more static metaphor: that of lavishly furnished, exotically perfumed rooms where the party never ends and Viagra-besotted satyrs chase young things around the casting couch shouting, “I got a box of chocolates that’ll rock the sox off any girl that wanna come my way” (MPLSoUND’s “Chocolate Box)--rooms with lots of trapdoors but no windows, the latest additions to a luxury hotel where you can check in anytime you want but you can never leave.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part II)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

ALLÁ : Digs (Crammed)--Allá ’s Jorge Ledezma called his group’s 2008 album Es Tiempo the “Chicano Pet Sounds,” but this follow-up is no Smile, Chicano or otherwise. Clocking in at under half an hour, Digs is as tight, raw and driving as Es Tiempo was expansive, layered and trippy. Aside from the catchy, one-chord original “Si Se Puede” (which at 1:52 is practically over before it begins), it’s also a tribute to some of the group’s favorite bands, comprising Allá-flavored versions of songs by the Residents, Terry Riley and John Cale, Los Dug Dugs (pioneering Mexican psychedelic posters), and Faust (pioneering Kraut-rock experimentalists), versions solid enough to have under-forties seeking out the originals. “Love Lockdown,” meanwhile, is such a hothouse vocal tour de force it might have Kanye West seeking out singer Lupe Martinez.

THE BEATLES: Past Masters (EMI/Capitol/Apple)--The bad news, in case you haven’t heard, is that these two discs of odds and sods come packaged so tightly in a replica of a foldout LP cover that it’s all but impossible not to scratch them every time you slide them in or out. (At least vinyl records came protected in paper or plastic sleeves.) The good news is that you needn’t slide these discs in or out at all to hear their contents. Originally left off the Beatles’ U.K. albums and released only on 45s or EPs, most of these thirty-three songs have nevertheless long been available on one side of the Atlantic or another on compilations with more user-friendly--and disc-friendly--packaging (1962-1966, 1967-1970, Rarities, 20 Greatest Hits, 1). Meanwhile, though only audio nerds will likely detect the much-ballyhooed audio superiority of these latest re-masterings, average Fab Four fans of various nationalities will easily notice the pointlessly extreme separation of the “wider stereo” versions of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German) and “Sie Liebt Dich” (“She Loves You,” ditto) and wonder why we couldn’t have gotten, oh, I dunno, a spruced-up The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl or some other genuine obscurities instead.

CHRIS BELL: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe) (Rhino Handmade)--Big Star’s first album, 1972’s #1 Record, really is as special as its devotees claim, a perennially fresh hodge-podge of flower power and Beatle-esque pop (hence “power pop,” the name of the genre it more or less spawned). And Chris Bell was as much a reason for #1 Record’s greatness as his band mate Alex Chilton was. The proof is this album, compiled from Bell’s mostly unreleased mid-’seventies recordings and first released in 1992, nearly fourteen years after his death in a car wreck. This limited edition adds a second disc of alternate takes and pre- and post-Big Star recordings that Bell made as a regular at Memphis’s Ardent Studios as well as updated and insightful liner reminiscences by those who knew him best. Ethereal and earthy. Exhilarating and sad.

GEORGE BENSON: Songs and Stories (Concord/Monster)--For this album’s first seven cuts, it’s Benson-esque business as usual: smooth soul-lite vocals, smooth jazz-lite guitar, and smooth covers both familiar (James Taylor) and obscure (Donny Hathaway)--stuff that Benson has long proven he can do in his sleep by sounding as if he was asleep when he did it. ’Round about the thirty-five-minute mark, however, his dreams pick up steam, thanks to two lengthy, slowly simmering funk-lite instrumentals (Marcus Miller’s “Exotica,” Lamont Dozier’s “Living in High Definition”) and to two better covers (Tony Joe White’s familiar “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Smokey Robinson’s obscure “One like You”). But his neatest trick is going out on an instrumental version of Christopher Cross’s biggest hit so meditative it makes not quite waking up seem like the smoothest “Sailing” there is.

CARPENTERS: 40/40 (A&M/UME)--How is this two-disc, forty-song Carpenters compilation different than Gold, the two-disc, forty-song Carpenters compilation released in 2004? Well, since thirty of the songs on both collections are the same, 75% of 40/40 isn’t different at all. And although those who see the glass as half full will correctly point out that many of these songs are masterpieces of easy listening at its most tensile and therefore worth owning twice, those who see the glass as half empty will correctly point out that owning them twice and buying them twice are very different things. Furthermore, the ten songs on Gold but not on 40/40 (especially “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again,” “Merry Christmas, Darling,” and “Karen’s Theme”) are better than the ten songs on 40/40 but not on Gold.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part III)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

ROSANNE CASH: The List (Manhattan)--Listeners have long wondered why some all-covers albums by performers better known for their own material actually turn out well, especially since most such albums don’t. Well, with The List Rosanne Cash has solved the mystery. First, have an iconic roots musician for a father. Second, get that father to give you a list of one hundred essential songs from a particular genre (country in this case) when you’re eighteen and listen to them a lot for the next thirty-five years. Third, choose a dozen of the songs. Fourth, marry a top-flight producer for whom arranging such material represents a lifelong dream. Fifth, possess a voice so gorgeous that the cameo harmonizers (Springsteen, Costello, Tweedy, Rufus Wainwright) just get in the way. It’s really quite simple when you think about it.

CRAIG CHAQUICO: Follow the Sun (Shanachie)--No one who has bought a new Santana album in the last two decades has any business looking down his nose at this nimble take on Latinized jazz-rock--even if Chaquico was a member of Starship and therefore partially responsible for “We Built This City.” That city, incidentally, was San Francisco, so this album’s sole vocal track, “Lights Out San Francisco,” might’ve been a belated make-up call, except it’s stupid too: “So tired of living like a rolling stone,” sings guest vocalist Rolf Hartley (I dunno, Keith Richards seems to have a lot of fun), and “When I’m all alone, holding my own” (no comment). So stick to the others: breezy, Laserium-lite soundscapes fully deserving of titles like “Solar Wind,” “Island Breeze,” “Fantasy in Paradise,” and “The Coast of Orion.”

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Easy Come Easy Go (Decca)--The subtitle, “12 Songs for Music Lovers,” is pretty funny. Finally, a CD for people who actually love music! It’s also inaccurate, as one of the songs--the experimental version of the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” that takes up eight of this album’s fifty-six minutes--is unlikely to be loved by anyone. The rest, however, is one impressive example after another of Faithfull’s unique ability to transform any room in which her music is played into a post-punk Moulin Rouge. No one else finds songs, whether old (Dolly Parton, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Randy Newman) or not so old (Neko Case, the Decembrists) better suited to her voice, and no one else has a voice like Faithfull’s. It’s enough to give cigarettes, if not necessarily heroin, a good name.

WOODY GUTHRIE: My Dusty Road (Rounder)--As recounted at length in the accompanying booklet, the story behind the 2003 discovery and subsequent refurbishing of the metal masters that function as this four-disc set’s Rosetta Stone is almost as interesting as the songs themselves. Serendipitously well-preserved, the masters turned out to contain Guthrie’s 1944 recordings for the Stinson company, much of which had been released over the years but in annoyingly lo-fi versions. Of the fifty-four tracks thematically organized herein (“Woody’s ‘Greatest’ Hits,” “Woody’s Roots,” “Woody the Agitator,” “Woody, Cisco and Sonny”), six have never been previously released, and one, “Bad Repetation” (sic), wasn’t even known to have existed. Would the left-wing individualism they enshrine matter much if it hadn’t inspired Bob Dylan and he, in turn, countless others? Maybe not. But it did, so it does.

BRUCE HORNSBY & THE NOISEMAKERS: Levitate (Verve Forecast)--With its frequently snappy tempos, relatively modest song lengths, and gregariously catchy hooks, Levitate evokes the top-forty-friendly Bruce Hornsby of old just enough to make the lyrics easy to ignore at first. When the melodies of “Paperboy” and “Invisible” could teach Paul McCartney a thing or two, who cares that the former has a verse about cannibalism or that the latter’s narrator hates his own skin? Eventually, though, the wacky triptych of “Space Is the Place,” “Michael Raphael,” and “Simple Prayer” will force even the most insouciant listener to play armchair metaphysician. And the characterization of nineteenth-century American pioneers as Nazis (“The Black Rats of London”) and red-state residents as rednecks (“In The Low County”) will have reasonable folks wondering how nuts Hornsby would’ve gone if McCain and Palin had won.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part IV)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

IAN HUNTER: Man Overboard (New West)--Picking up where he left off with 2007’s Shrunken Heads, the erstwhile Mott the Hoople frontman has now become the first major rocker to release an album at the age of seventy. More impressively, you’d never know it to be the work of a septuagenarian. If anything, Hunter’s awareness of his mortality seems to have tapped an autumnal wellspring. True, “Arms and Legs” begins with him seeing a “ghostly shadow of a man” in the mirror, but it develops into a full-bodied love song, and by the next track, “Up and Running,” he’s up and running. The primarily acoustic instrumentation and Hunter’s increasingly raspy pipes may suggest early Rod Stewart more than vintage Mott, but early Rod Stewart was really good. And “Girl from the Office” is as exquisitely charming as klassic Kinks.

KEITH JARRETT: Testament: Paris/London (ECM)--Two more improvised solo-piano jazz concerts from the master of solo-piano jazz improv, the first (Paris) clocking in at sixty-nine minutes, the second (London) at ninety-three. And, as has been the case for the last thirty-plus years, if you didn’t know Jarrett was making each track up as he went along, you’d never guess he was. The tension between his left hand’s repetitive rhythms and his right hand’s melodic virtuosity still provides the suspense--a suspense made all the more gripping because it holds its own creator in its grip--and he still draws upon the full range of his vast musical knowledge (pretty much everything from classical to Miles Davis). Most of what results is as impressive as the occasional slow, simple changes of pace are beautiful.

TOMMY KEENE: In the Late Bright (Second Motion)--It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years have passed since Tommy Keene released Places That Are Gone. More than any other middle-aged pop-rocker, Keene seems stuck in a moment that he can’t get out of. Not that it’s a bad moment: His attractive setting of bittersweet vignettes to wistful melodies sprinkled with Rickenbacker-sounding fairy dust and sung in a gruff Paisely Underground voice serves as a perennial rebuke to the vicissitudes of fashion. But it is weird that he sounds exactly the same as he did when it appeared he would accompany his then-indie peers R.E.M. and the Replacements into high-profile glory. Those who argue that Keene does too evolve will cite “Elevated,” this album’s sole--and Keene’s first-ever--instrumental. R.E.M. and Replacements fans will say big deal.

THE KINKS: Picture Book (Sanctuary)--Nineteen years after their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and twelve years after their breakup, the Kinks finally get their box set. Has it been worth the wait? Other than the fact that “Come Dancing” appears only in a demo version and “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is omitted altogether, yes. The eighty-two songs on Discs One through Three, which chronicle 1964 (when “You Really Got Me” exploded on both sides of the Atlantic) through 1970 (when “Lola” did the same), find the Kinks not only keeping quantitative and qualitative stride with the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who but also sometimes outstriding them. Alas, as Picture Book‘s lengthy booklet painstakingly documents, they could also be uncommonly volatile, insularly British, and bewilderingly inclined toward concept albums (see Disc Four). It took the back-to-basics Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget albums (Disc Five) to pave the way for their early-eighties success. Disc Six proves that their barely noticed late-’eighties and early-’nineties failures had their share of highlights as well.

ELENI MANDELL: Artificial Fire (Zedtone)--You’d never guess from the care evident in these fifteen songs that there’s an economic downturn or that 2008 saw a 20% decrease in CD sales. It’s almost as if Eleni Mandell feels liberated by her reduced chances of striking it rich as a pop star--liberated to forgo obvious radio-friendliness for offbeat syncopation, occasionally dissonant instrumentation, and folk-jazz melodies that unfold as slowly and as unpredictably as a reverie. Her lyrics unfold the same way. Essentially a miniaturist (kissing plays a central role in five songs), she also writes about macrocosmic matters (“God Is Love,” “I Love Planet Earth”) with no hint of sentimentality or agitprop. More than anything else, what draws you in is her solid-smoke voice, whether tough (“Cracked”) or tender (the rest).

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part V)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five brief ones.

ROGER JOSEPH MANNING JR.: Catnip Dynamite (Oglio)--Even when overdubbed into Queen-like choirs, Manning’s voice is a little too thin, and that’s the only thing wrong with this tour de force of what can only be called ace influence synthesis. Both the Beach Boys and Paul McCartney--heck, maybe even 10cc and the Osmonds--in their primes would‘ve killed for a song as sweet and buoyant as “Love’s Never Been Half As Good,” and Alan Parsons could’ve no doubt found places for “Survival Machine” and “The Turnstile at Heaven’s Gate.” But the most glorious result of Manning’s misspent youth is “Down in Front.” Combining a hook worthy of T. Rex or Sweet with the clavichord riff from ELO’s “Turn to Stone,” it could almost make one believe that bubblegum music really is the naked truth.

BUDDY & JULIE MILLER: Written in Chalk (New West)--If anyone (or, in this case, any two) can make you believe they really want to be taken back to the time when they had two mules instead of a tractor, it’s Buddy and Julie Miller on this album’s “Ellis County”--solo, together, or on other people’s records, they write and sing as if they were channeling spirits distilled long ago and far away. As usual, the Buddy-sung songs tend toward backwoods country blues, the Julie-sung songs tend toward late-night heartbreak, and the ones they share tend toward salvation by way of hell. The difference this time is the cameo duet partners. Regina McCrary and Patty Griffin get two songs apiece, Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris each get one, and while they don’t add much, at least they don’t subtract much either.

BETH ORTON: Trailer Park (Legacy Edition) (Arista/Legacy)--Because it was ahead of its time and because it wasn’t as celebrated here as it was in England, Trailer Park (Disc One of this thirteenth-anniversary reissue) will still strike Americans as contemporary. Not, of course, that “contemporary“ is synonymous with “brilliant.” While the London fog one hears in Orton’s voice gives the ear more to work with than the Nova Scotia sunshine in Sarah MacLachlan’s, Orton’s overriding sentimentality is, in the end, just as unrewarding to the brain. Where this edition really comes to life is Disc Two. Comprising her 1997 Best Bit EP and eight other previously uncollected B-sides and covers of the period, its patchwork nature makes for pleasant surprises. Best bit: her use of Tony! Toni! Toné ’s “If I Had No Loot” riff in “Best Bit.”

PERE UBU: Long Live Père Ubu! (Hearthan)--Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Pere Ubu Fan? Sure, you know the band is named after a character in Alfred Jarry’s seminally absurd nineteenth-century play Ubu Roi. You’ve even been to this album’s website (, learned that the songs are based on a new adaptation of Jarry’s drama, found the libretto, read along, done outside research, and laughed repeatedly at the slowed-down, looped belching of drummer Steve Mehlman on “Less Said the Better.” Unfortunately, you’ve also come across this quote from Ubu leader David Thomas: “Brutal, lacking charm, and without redeeming values, this is an album for our times. It is, in fact, the only punk record that's been made in the last thirty years." What were the Ramones--chopped liver?

IGGY POP: Préliminaires (Astralwerks)--That Préliminaires is no ordinary Iggy Pop record should be obvious from its appearing on Astralwerks; that Préliminaires is no ordinary Astralwerks record should be obvious from its having been made by Iggy Pop. Except for the ambient-inclined “I Want to Go to the Beach,” “How Insensitive,” and “Spanish Coast,” the music works variations on everything from Leonard Cohen seduction (“Les Feuilles Mortes”), Tom Waits cabaret (“King of the Dogs”), and Howlin’ Wolf blues (“He’s Dead, She’s Alive”) to The Idiot-style punk (“Nice to Be Dead,” “She’s a Business”) minor-key synth-pop (“Party Time”), and spoken word (“A Machine for Loving”). The “theme” may elude those who haven’t read The Possibility of an Island, the Michel Houellebecq novel on which Préliminaires is based. The songs might make them want to read it.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Pt. VI)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five brief ones.

CHUCK PROPHET: ¡Let Freedom Ring! (Yep Roc)--Amid the various aural templates that Prophet has used throughout his career, the one constant has been his voice. A cross between Iggy Pop and Tom Petty in which the less flexible elements of both cancel each other out, Prophet’s singing conveys a conversational cool appropriate to his understated take on American decay. Even his occasional recourse to headline news (Code Orange alerts and Prozac in “American Man,” global-warming apocalypse in the title cut) never solidifies into a Springsteenian bludgeon. In fact, undercutting the Boss seems to be the whole point of “What Can a Mother Do,” or at least of the verse about a girl who was “born to run” and “unwanted in seventeen states.” As for the aural template, it’s Prophet’s loosest and most rock ’n’ roll yet.

EDDI READER: Love Is the Way (Rough Trade)--Inexplicably, Eddi Reader has failed to connect with a mass U.S. audience for twenty years now, and, judging from the ever-so-delicate Old World feel of these thirteen acoustically foregrounded new recordings, she probably doesn’t care. But, whether intentionally or because she simply can’t help herself, she’s still not above covering two songs familiar to U.S. Baby Boomers: Spring’s Brian Wilson-composed “Sweet Mountain of Love” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again” (in a medley with Reader’s own “Queen of Scots”). Like the other songs, Reader delivers them with a combination of insouciance and rapture, as if she’d accidentally left the mics on while just playing stuff she likes, heard the playbacks, liked them, and figured that with a little enhancement they could be high points. She was right.

MINDY SMITH: Stupid Love (Vanguard)--Perhaps because Mindy Smith’s conflation of folk, pop, and country feels like a throwback to the days when performers only got to put ten songs on an album, it’s tempting to guess which three of these thirteen tracks would’ve gotten the ax. It’s also difficult--Smith is as economical performer as you’ll find, specializing in lyrics in which every word counts and melodies in which every chord change matters. Sometimes the consequences of having three producers become apparent (“Love Lost” nearly gets lost amid sonic clutter), but mostly her sound is as focused as her voice is pretty. And speaking of focused, titles such as “What Went Wrong,” “Bad Guy,” and “Disappointed” are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how “stupid” she believes love can be.

DALE WATSON: The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 2 (Hyena)--Despite his knack for writing and singing like the second coming of Merle Haggard, Watson can be uneven. But this, his second installment of paeans to the trucker life, is his most consistent effort since his honky-tonk masterpiece I Hate These Songs. Obviously, an album consisting entirely of songs with titles such as “Truckin’ Man,” “10-4,” and “Truckin’ Queen” (the first-ever tribute to a truck-stop transvestite?) risks coming off like one big novelty. What saves it is the fiddle, the interplay of greasy-spoon guitars (two electrics and a pedal steel), and lyrics so vividly detailed they make “toolin’ down the Interstate” seem like the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

YO LA TENGO: Popular Songs (Matador)--Can we just “flip all the cards,” as they used to say on What’s My Line?, and declare Yo La Tengo the greatest band in the world? In the twenty-three years since their recording debut, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have specialized in sculpting recycled scraps of once-hip genres into new and freshly arresting shapes without sanding down the rusty, jagged edges or welding them into over-homogenized blobs. The most obvious touchstones this time are the Velvet Underground (the sixteen-minute, feedback-channeling instrumental “And the Glitter Is Gone” sounds like “Sister Ray” over under sideways down) and the Four Tops (“If It’s True” begins just like “I Can’t Help Myself”), but the depths conjured by the blending of airy vocals with garage guitars and chintzy keyboards remain theirs and theirs alone.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fiona: Squeezing Out Sparks (1992)

This article appeared in a spring '92 issue of the Chicago Area Metal Magazine (CAMM) and was one of my first features. Enduring thanks to Fiona Flanagan, who generously gave me more phone time than CAMM's relatively limited readership probably merited....

“Who do I like to listen to?” muses Fiona Flanagan, the veteran hard-rock siren whose new album, Squeeze, is about to be released by Geffen Records. “I just bought that Sandi Saraya record, When the Blackbird Sings. I listen to old Rod Stewart. And I love the Ozzy Osbourne record that’s out right now.”

She pauses.

“Oh, and I just bought ‘I’m Too Sexy,’” she admits, laughing. “I bought the single last night. I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”

Flanagan laughs a lot these days. But while life looks pretty good for her at the moment--new album, new label, new band (named Fiona, by the way)--she hasn’t always had a lot to laugh about.

Take, for instance, 1985, a year that, by all rights, should’ve been a really big one for her. Atlantic Records released her solo debut (the now out-of-print Fiona), she sang all over the No Small Affair soundtrack, and she opened for the ever-hot Bryan Adams on the U.S. leg of his megabucks Reckless tour.

But by year’s end both her album and the film were in the bargain basements, and Bryan Adams’ predominantly teenage female audience had apparently decided not to turn Flanagan into their latest role model.

1986 was better--for awhile. Not only was she
slated for some big-time top billing opposite Bob Dylan and Rupert Everett (of Dance with a Stranger fame) in Richard Marquand’s Hearts of Fire (Marquand’s follow-up to Jagged Edge), but the release of her second album (the still-in-print Beyond the Pale) was also scheduled to capitalize on the interest that the film would no doubt generate.

And, just in case Plans A and B should somehow fail, Flanagan landed the role of a “kinky hooker” who kills herself on what was then TV’s highest-rated show, Miami Vice.
But her character’s suicide proved uncannily symbolic: For the second time in as many opportunities, her promisingly multi-faceted career bit the dust.

First off, during the editing of Hearts of Fire, Marquand died of a stroke. “It
kind of freaked everybody out,” Flanagan recalls. “I think the film was problematic before that, but once he died, the film was orphaned. It was really his baby.”

More problematic than Hearts of Fire’s failure, however--at least from the standpoint of Flanagan’s music career--was the debacle that Beyond the Pale turned into before it was done, especially considering how well it could’ve turned out.

“I ended up marrying the producer, Beau Hill, so the recording of it was enjoyable,” she says. “It’s just that the record was pretty bad. There were too many cooks, not enough communication, not enough pre-production, not enough rehearsal with the band.”

It didn’t help either that the “band” was really just an assortment of studio pros coming and going through a revolving door. “It was a mish-mosh. People were
getting fired. And that’s what the record sounds like.

“But,” she wants to know, “why is that record what we’re talking about?”


It’s easy to understand why Flanagan wants to talk about Squeeze. Ten songs packed with walloping hooks and juiced to life by Marc Tanner’s metallic echo-chamber production, it sounds like what you might hear if that guy in Roxette were to ditch his current partner for Lita Ford.

In other words, if Squeeze doesn’t ring the bell at the top of the strongman pole that is the pop-music business, then maybe the world’s just plain unworthy of it and Fiona should pack it all in for a career in modeling.

“I took my time with this one,” she explains. And how much time exactly did she take? “Eighteen months. Not eighteen months of actual recording, but I wanted to put a band together. I started out with just me and [A&R man] John Kalodner. Then I solicited players.”

Did she have trouble finding musicians who’d want to play with someone who, despite being born and reared a Flanagan, had been as untouched by the luck of the Irish as she’d been up to that time?

“No,” she laughs. “There are lots of unemployed musicians, believe me. And, anyway, I didn’t
exactly try to get Eric Clapton on guitar. I just wanted people that were interested in the same things I was.”

The lineup that solidified about six months into the Squeeze project included guitarist Dave Marshall, ex-Y&T drummer (and Wayne’s World bit player) Jimmy DeGrasso, and bassist (and long-time Flanagan cohort) Laura McDonald. It’s a lineup, according to Flanagan, that feels more like a band everyday.

“It’s more of a democracy now than it was twelve months ago just because everybody’s been in it longer. I mean, Jimmy’s getting the band together now with Laura and Dave while I’m on the road promoting the record. Everybody’s really divvied up the responsibilities. Everybody’s in for equal splits and equal say.

“But,” she adds, “you get out what you put into it. So as more time goes by and the more these guys put in, the more we’re a band. That takes time, but from when we went into rehearsals to the actual recording, and then afterwards and now, it’s just like a train that’s really picking up steam.”

By the time you read this, Flanagan, McDonald, DeGrasso, and Marshall, will have just finished shooting its first video, “Ain’t That Just like Love.” They will also be in the middle of rehearsals for an as-yet-unspecified touring itinerary.

“There are two ways to go with that,” says Flanagan of the concert
circuit. “You could play clubs, or you could open for someone”--preferably someone with a large-venue contract and an audience of potential Fiona fans.

But, whichever route Fiona takes, one thing crowds should notice live even more than on record is the added flexibility and resilience that Flanagan’s opera lessons have added to her already remarkable voice. So why did she sign up for lessons in the first place?

“John [Kalodner] suggested that I take them. And once I went to the first one, I realized what a good idea it was. The guy [professional opera singer Ron Anderson] obviously knew what he was doing, and I obviously didn’t know what I was doing. So I thought, ’Bingo! I can learn something here!’”

What did she, a veteran of three solo albums and several soundtracks and live tours, feel she could learn from an opera singer?

“Well, my voice was really stiff. I’d taken it as far as I could personally. This guy knew a lot more about singing than I did. He knew a lot about the human body. He’d been studying all his life, and I just thought it was a brilliant idea.”

But back to the prospects of touring with an already-
established act: Whom does Flanagan think Fiona might appropriately warm up for?

“I don’t really know,” she admits. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to open for Skid Row. I don’t think that audience would like what I do.”

But why not? The music on Squeeze is loud and hooky, like Skid Row at its best, and Flanagan’s cheekbones are more photogenic than Sebastian Bach’s.

I think Skid Row’s a little bit heavier. They’re darker, especially with the second record.”

How about someone a little lighter, then, like Cher?

“If the money was there, sure!" Flanagan says without hesitation. "I think her audience would like this record.

“People have broad tastes,” she continues. “I think it would surprise everybody to go to somebody’s living room and see what records they listen to or what concerts they want to attend. People don’t have to define themselves by one particular strain of music anymore. I think all of this really narrow marketing is a mistake.”

But are there enough broad tastes to help Squeeze turn a profit? After all, Lita Ford’s equally worthy Dangerous Curves recently died an early death.

“I can’t answer that,” Flanagan says. “This business is a mystery to everyone. I mean, who could’ve called Nirvana coming out of nowhere and selling 200,000 records a day?

“It’s a drag about the Lita Ford record because I really liked it. But that’s really got nothing to do with me as far as I’m concerned. If it does, I might as well quit.

“Besides,” she says, “I don’t really think about who’s making records and what’s on the charts when I’m doing my work. Basically, I think about tomorrow and what’s for dinner.”

And what is for dinner?

"Probably McDonald's," she laughs, somewhat interview weary. "I think I need some red meat."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

God's Jukebox: A Fourth Testament (1991)

The following piece and its accompanying graphics appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of the Door.
..... ..... .....

In his book A Third Testament, the late British curmudgeon and one-time Door interviewee Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, and Dostoevsky as “God’s spies”--men “in search of God” whose “special role” it was “to relate their time to eternity.” While they were, he wrote, “quintessentially men of their time” (men who, like actual spies, merged “into the social and political scene … echoing the current consensus”), they nevertheless provided a “bridge … between the darkness of the will and the light of the imagination … and a prophetic voice calling on us to cross it.”

Now, Augustine, Blake, Pascal, et. al may have been God’s spies at one time, but mention their names to a Baby Boomer and watch his jaw go slack. It’s clear that God needs new spies, and at the risk of blowing their covers, I propose, from the field of rock ’n’ roll (common ground between the literate and the il-) the following canon: T Bone Burnett, Bob Dylan, Al Green, Little Richard, the Mercy Seat, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, and Sam Phillips. Consider the evidence …

T Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma ’80). Another Door interviewee, Burnett has seen it all, done most of it, and written about it with the goofy abandon you’d expect from a guy christened after a steak. By the time he made this record, he’d already made three country-rock, gospel-inflected LPs with his fellow crazies Steven Soles and David Mansfield as the Alpha Band, toured with Dylan, and returned to the church of his youth. Truth Decay bridged the carnal-spiritual divide by marrying Tom Waits-ian piss-factory narratives to Sun Studio rockabilly and leavening its preacher talk with seaminess and wisecracks. It’s true that later albums found naked women occupying more and more of his attention, but better babes than an obsession with the Rapture or some other Evangelical black hole.

Bob Dylan: Shot of Love (Columbia ’81). Born-agains know all about Slow Train Coming and Saved, but this album has always smelled of bad faith. The problem was the middle of side one, where the world’s most famous “completed Jew” followed the right-on “Property of Jesus” with a hymn to Lenny Bruce. Born-agains didn’t know who Lenny Bruce was, so they went out and bought How to Talk Dirty and Influence People and maybe Albert Goldman’s exhaustive bio. When they found out that Bruce had been an unregenerate drug addict, a sex fiend, and a foul-mouthed comic whose jokes didn’t strike them as all that funny, they were sure Bob had lost his Christian marbles. In a sense they were right. But in another sense he was reconnecting with a world in which the unregenerate call the shots. Further proof of Shot of Love’s greatness: Rolling Stone hated it.

Al Green: Live in Tokyo (Motown’81). For the complete scoop on Green, one of the greatest soul men ever, rent The Gospel According to Al Green from your local video store. Meanwhile, this recording, made in ’78 but unreleased for three years, captures plenty of Green’s legendary transition from sexual healer to Pentecostal pulpiteer. There are strong versions of “Belle” (“It’s you I want, but it’s Him [sic] that I need”), “Love and Happiness” (in which Jesus gets a name check before the fur starts to fly), and “You Ought to Be with Me,” a come-on to a woman that on this night metamorphosed into an ecstatic sermon replete with KJV quotations. Don’t know whether the cultural Buddhists in attendance got the gist, but they cheered anyway. Question for the ages: Were they moved by the Spirit or by a premonition that in fifteen years they’d own our corporate butts?

Little Richard: Lifetime Friend (Warner Bros. ’86). Talk about a man ahead of his time. According to his own bad self, Little Richard Penniman has spent much of his life overdrugged and oversexed every which way. But, according to his good self, he loves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On this all-but-ignored major-label “comeback,” his bad self kept the music rockin’ while his good self kept the lyrics biblical. Every song bespoke a faith at least as big as Sandi Patti (er, Sandi Patti’s), yet church folk were quicker to buy the Police instead. Maybe they were put off by Richard’s effeminate leer as captured in the cover photo or by that trace of eyeliner. (Goop it on like Tammy Faye and you’re O.K.) Or maybe they didn’t think that a man with whom they wouldn’t trust their sons could be trusted with God’s one and only.

The Mercy Seat: The Mercy Seat (Slash ’87). Fronted by Gordon Gano, the leader of the acoustic sleaze-punk trio the Violent Femmes, this oddball quartet’s gimmick was to sing gospel, traditional and new, to acoustic sleaze-punk rave-ups. Actually, that was just gimmick number one. Another was to have guitarist Gano, drummer Fernando Menendez, and bassist Patrice Moran dress in matching tuxes. Gimmick number three was to have the lead singer, a statuesque black bombshell named Zena Von Heppinstall, wear dresses so tight and short that you couldn’t help wondering what Gano really meant by “mercy seat.” But it was the husky spunk of her singing as much as her great legs that sparked the concept. Best line ever about being ready for Judgment Day: “I don’t wanna be caught doin’ my nails when the world comes tumbling’ down.”

Van Morrison: Common One (Warner Bros. ’80). This album is regarded by most as the Morrison not to own because it’s weird and amorphous. Besides, he’s sung more snappily about Jesus on Into the Music, Avalon Sunset, and Enlightenment. Yes, but remember this about God’s spies: They’re often up to more than they seem. Morrison has always been weird, from his go-to-hell attitude toward fans to his freakish overnight corpulence. As for amorphousness--well, when one sets out to convey the instant of conversion in a fifteen-minute song with few words and no melody (“When Heart Is Open”), he will sound somewhat “out there.” Out there for Van means growling and wheezing and howling and otherwise almost speaking in tongues. Or maybe he just had to sneeze really bad and didn’t want to funk up the mic. Stuff costs money, you know.

Maria Muldaur: Live in London (Making Waves/Stony Plain ’85). Homiletic excerpt from the final three minutes of the last song: “Y’know, people, something might seem so very tempting to you, something might seem so very attractive to you, something might seem so very irresistible to you, ’til you feel like you just can’t rest, ’til you go out there, and you try that thing, or you buy that thing, or you, I don’t know, maybe you smoke that thing, or, mmmmm, you might drink that thing, or maybe you think it’s cool to go out and snort that thing. Whoa! You might even shoot that thing in you arm. I know temptation comes in a lot of different sizes and shapes. Yes it does. And, y’know, you might not even have to wait ’til the hereafter to pay the price--you might start payin’ the price as soon as tomorrow morning’! So before you do it, you better think about it twice! Before you do it, people, you oughta think about the price! What about the price? What about the price? Whoa, people, I want you to steal away to the quiet of your room sometime and have yourself a little private talk with God and just ask him from the bottom of your heart, ‘Oh, Lord, what is it you want me to be doin’ down here?’”

Sam Phillips: The Indescribable Wow (Virgin’88). As Leslie Phillips she was a bright spot on CCM playlists. As Sam Phillips she recorded this gorgeous folk-pop hookfest with some knob-twiddling and band-member selection from her producer (and future husband) T Bone Burnett. No, Leslie didn’t get a sex change. She just thought that “going secular” merited a new appellation, and in her sweet innocence she didn’t even know that rock ’n’ roll already had a Sam Phillips. Like her namesake (who produced Jerry Lee Lewis, after all), she knew that sexy music, when it was good, could feel like a struggle between flesh and spirit. Unlike her namesake, she was something to look at (and probably still is).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The CAMM Chronicles: The Reviews (1992)

In 1992 I had the privilege of writing for the short-lived Chicago Area Metal Magazine (or CAMM) under its editor John Everson. Besides the two features I wrote for it that allowed me to interview Fiona Flanagan and Ted Nugent respectively (to be posted here as soon as I can type them in), I also got to review albums (see below) that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to. The best perquisite, however, was getting to write for CAMM's big-sister publication--the Illinois Entertainer--after CAMM folded, a gig I began in 1993 and that I still value and enjoy. Thanks, my Windy City friends!

Black Sabbath
Dehumanizer (Reprise)

Paranoid is the best Sabbath ever because, twenty-two years on, it still lives up to its name. On it, the Ozzy Osbourne-led lineup boiled irrational fear about Viet Nam, the afterlife, and a future with or without drugs into a caldron of bad vibrations so strong that even now most metal sounds pansified next to it. This album, which reunites the Dio-Iommi-Butler-Appice lineup of Mob Rules under the under-exploited production hand of Mack, tries hard to resurrect the old dread, and at times it comes close. The twin eternity-in-hell songs, “Too Late” and “Buried Alive,” might spook unbelievers in a weak moment, and “TV Crimes” (a metal “Personal Jesus”) works up a lather as well as a sweat. Take it as a testament to the group’s former glory, then, and not as an affront to its current mechanical heaviness, that nothing here will make you forget how Sabbath used to come on like a force of nature.

King’s X
King’s X (Atlantic)

By now the themes (redemption and its discontents) and the sound (soulful heavy-metal thunder shot through with Beatle-esque lightning) that made this power trio’s songs unique have lost their novelty--if not necessarily their entertainment--value. Whether the blame lies with Messrs. Pinnick, Tabor, and Gaskill or with their longtime producer Sam Taylor is hard to say. But four albums on the same job can dull even the sharpest reflexes, and the absence of both sparkling ballads (cf. “Summerland”) and lengthy instrumental freak-outs (cf. “Moanjam”) suggests someone should take a break. Or a hike.

Monster Magnet
Spine of God (Primo Scree/Caroline)

Of the dozens of long-haired, spaced-out, zombie-metal bands currently citing Sabbath’s Paranoid as an inspiration, these boys are the only ones who seems even remotely capable of improving on it. From their motto (“It’s a Satanic drug thing--you wouldn’t understand”) to their well-chosen cover tune (Grand Funk’s “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother”), they churn out a dark, seething murk that’s only intermittently lit up by David Wyndorf’s gutturally emoted “explicit lyrics” before they’re swallowed right back up again by the clouds of locomotive breath sprawling forth from John McBain’s guitars.

March or Die (WTG)

The pre-release publicity made much of Philthy Phil’s latest abandoning of the drummer’s chair and of Phlegmy Lemmy’s plans to cover “Cat Scratch Fever.” Well, anyone who after fifteen years of listening to Motorhead still has hearing acute enough to notice the new drummer has been missing the point, and although Lemmy says his “Cat Scratch Fever” sounds the way Nugent’s should’ve, he’s wrong. The real news here is that “Bad Religion” wins the best-in-show prize among the current crop of anti-TV-preacher songs (cf. Black Sabbath, Genesis) by sampling Robert Tilton and that Lemmy’s duet with Ozzy Osbourne (“I Ain’t No Nice Guy”) proves he can go all mellow and heartfelt without succumbing to the melodrama of “1916.” Elsewhere, Wurzel and Zoom live up to their names, and the band still sounds the way it looks: mean, ugly, and in no mood for crap.

Wrenched (Hollywood)
Their name guarantees that stores will file them right after Motorhead, which is no accident, I'm sure. But surly, unkempt appearances aside, this quartet's still a few musical miles shy of Lemmy and the gang. The problem's not the sound; the veteran metal producer Jim Faraci gets serious juice out of the standard two-guitar-bass-and-drums attack. Neither do the guys lack chops. Larry Hernandez howls and growls like a truly unpleasant fellow, and the guitarist Dave Krocker plays like one to the solo born. The problem is the formulaic, post-modern biker-metal songs. Nothing here sounds like the next big thing. Or the next little thing, either. The next tiny thing, maybe. Here's hoping they grow.

Transmutation (Axiom)

This noisy exercise in metallic free jazz recalls the voodoo vibeology of those ’70s Miles Davis LPs that Chuck Eddy called “metal” in Stairway to Hell. Everyone--including (and maybe especially) a mad guitarist named Buckethead--sounds as if he’s improvising while on acid, and if the combo sometimes skronks its way into the abyss, there’s no denying the metal crunch of “Blast/War Dub Machine,” “Interface/Stimulation Loop,” or “Crash Victim/Black Science Navigator.” (How could there be with titles like those?) Bernie Worrell’s organ is more souped up than Keith Emerson’s, and there are fewer quiet parts than on Houses of the Holy. If you’re still not sure this disc belongs between Poison and Prong on your shelf, remember that its producer, Bill Laswell, also oversaw Motorhead’s Orgasmatron all those years ago.

Rhino Bucket
Get Used to It (Reprise)

Unwashed, unkempt, and fueled by too much booze, nicotine, and sex, these four Van Nuys guttersnipes probably don’t have long to live, and they sing and play as if they know they don’t. Georg Dolivo pushes his shredded vocal chords past the threshold of pain, and both he and Greg Fields slap together power chords from the bottom of the rock-and-roll barrel. Titles like “She’s a Screamer,” “The Devil Sent You,” and “This Ain’t Heaven” summarize their experience with groupies, and the closest they come to a ballad is the affectionately titled “Stomp,” in which they strip Guns N’ Roses’ “Rocket Queen” of everything but the rhythm track and the orgasmic chick. So call it scuzz-metal to die for and hope they survive long enough to get the joke.

Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed (Megaforce)
From the groupie who kicks things off with beat poetry to the Jim Carroll impersonator who’s horny for evil, from Critter and Fluffy’s postmodern sampling to Phildo Owens’ way with a rap, this album reclaims the artsy high ground from techno-wimps without conceding one Richter Scale degree of skate-metal’s woofer-rattling power. The lyrics, meanwhile, manage the considerably less impressive trick of encrusting the Good Ship Anarchy with those pesky barnacles called clichés.

Soul Kitchen
Soul Kitchen (Giant)
They look like metal and they're named after a Doors song, but their roots, as Jeff Wilson sings in "Carry Me," stem from their being "raised on blue-eyed soul," by which they apparently mean Small Faces, Humble Pie, and early Rod Stewart. Such influences might explain Wilson's raspy-throated belting but not necessarily why he's good at it, why the band prefers electrified boogie to metal cliches but not why they sound unusually accomplished for a rookie act. Obviously, this stuff's a throwback, but like the Black Crowes, Soul Kitchen transforms their love for British Invasion blues-rock and Southern-fried funk into songs whose riffs, hooks, and verbal imagery challenge rather than worship the conventions. And it's definitely significant that, although the songs range from four minutes to six, none of them feel as if they go on too long.

Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds
Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds (Geffen)

If it’s hard to imagine from the sound of it that Stradlin could’ve cut his Guns N’ Roses stuff sitting down, it’s harder yet to imagine that he could’ve cut this stuff standing up. In striving for the burned-out, hung-over, raspy-throated groove that his idols Keith Richards and Ron Wood achieve naturally, he captures too much of their punch-drunk wooziness and not of the moss-dislodging fight that keeps Stones rolling. In other words, Stradlin sounds about twice as old as he is, a sound rendered doubly sad because that’s how he probably feels. But at least as an ex-Gun N’ Rose he has an excuse, something his second guitarist, the ex-Georgia Satellite Rick Richards, doesn’t--considering how long he’s been unemployed, he should have lots of fresh energy stored up. On the plus side, both “Buck o’ Trouble” and the Hounds’ take on Toots Hibbert’s “Pressure Drop” pack a punky punch, and the Gratefully Deadened Bo Diddley shuffle of “Time Goes By” feels all right too, in a burned-out, hung-over, raspy-throated kind of way. It’s just weird to realize that these songs are all the guy who wrote “Pretty Tied Up” wants to use his illusion for.

Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance (Intense)

Album number three finds Guy Ritter and his fellow vegetarian, Jesus-worshiping, non-fur-wearing mosh monsters whipping their splattery squall into a ferocity only hinted at on albums one and two. Not only do drummer Ted Kirkpatrick and bassist Victor Macia pound like an impending embolism, but the frazzled high end glistens like gelatinous tubercles of purulent ossification. (No, I don’t know what any of those terms mean--I was just quoting song titles.) The lyrics are better too. Instead of the likes of “Jesus came once to save you. / Turn away and he’s gonna slay you” (from Stop the Bleeding), we get spooky narratives. In one a soldier who feels a body part where he shouldn’t because it got blown off in the war; in another some kids are haunted for years by nightmares resulting from their having played Uncle Wiggily. Add to these ingredients Ritter’s improved hell-hound singing and the emergence of hummable melodies, and you have an example of ruminating virulence--or is that spectrophobic dementia?--at its finest. (Ya gotta love those titles.)

Manic Frustration (Def American)

Why does this greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts album sound better than it is? Because by excavating and lubricating an actual groove from beneath Trouble’s raging tonnage and layering everything else on top of it, Rick Rubin has tooled this band into a heavy-metal locomotive that only derails when it slows down.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What a Jazz Pianist Should Be: Remembering Oscar Peterson

As originally published in the Times of Acadiana in January 2007....

Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian jazz pianist, passed away exactly one month ago--two days before Christmas, at the age of eighty-two--fourteen years after suffering a stroke that, despite compounding his chronic arthritis, only partially diminished the quality and frequency of his performances. He left a legacy that included more than one hundred albums, thousands of concerts, and the acclaim of a jazz community generally inclined to revere more troubled pianists (cf. Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans).

Not that Peterson was untroubled. He lamented that his commitment to touring and recording cost him three marriages. Professionally, however, he was a model of sober productivity. Reared in a supportive and discipline-instilling family, he had by his mid-twenties become a star in an increasingly crowded jazz firmament. Over the years, he established himself and his various trios and quartets as standards of excellence and performed with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stan Getz to Billie Holliday, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Duke Ellington.

"Good Peterson albums are abundant," wrote Len Lyons in his 1980 book The 101 Best jazz Albums, "but great ones are rare." The statement was less a condemnation than a guide for consumers daunted by Peterson's vast discography. Lyons' favorite was 1956's two-LP In Concert, but he also singled out no fewer than ten others. Nat Hentoff, in his Peterson eulogy, listed as his favorites The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival (also 1956) and Night Train (1962) while admitting that it was "difficult ... to select any as the best." As for the National association of Recording Arts and Sciences, it awarded Peterson the first of his seven Grammies in 1974 for his album The Trio.

Peterson was criticized in some quarters for lacking the iconoclastic streak often associated with jazz genius, for exploring--admittedly with breathtaking dexterity--the inner world of standards rather than the as-yet-undiscovered galaxies of the musical cosmos. To immerse oneself in his playing, however, is to discover the wisdom of seeing heaven in a wildlfower and the world in a grain of sand. As Dave Brubeck once put it, "[B]efore he was twenty [Peterson] had already encompassed what a jazz pianist should be."

In recent years, Peterson became the subject of a uniquely twenty-first-century form of praise: the YouTube comment. "I love the expression of instant pleasure when he starts playing," reads one. Another: "It was a massive privilege to have seen him in concert." Yet another: "These great jazz musicians will never realize what they brought to millions of people, how much they motivated us, made us cry, laugh and dance." There are plenty more where such encomiums came from--and, tellingly, in more languages than English.

The very literacy and profanity-free nature (a rarity among amateur Internet commentators) of such comments is itself a tribute to the man who inspired them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

JASON RINGENBERG: American, Mars 'n Bars

As published in the Times of Acadiana, April 9, 2003....

It’s a cool Saturday evening--the Ides of March, to be precise--and Jason Ringenberg is seated at the Blue Moon Café in Lafayette, Louisiana, an hour before the first of two sets he’ll eventually perform, musing about the ultimate Bob Dylan tribute album. “To choose the twelve best Dylan covers,” he says. “That’d be really hard.”

More than most people, he has a right to an opinion. It was, after all, a full-throttle version of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” that propelled Ringenberg’s band, Jason and the Scorchers, to international prominence in the mid-’80s. The song made the Scorchers staples of both MTV and college radio, igniting a fan base that would eventually see them through two EPs, five LPs, two live albums, and 2002’s collectorama disc Wildfires and Misfires. Before Triple-A radio, Americana music, “alt-country,” and “No Depression,” Jason and the Scorchers were the first, middle, and last word in country-punk.

According to Ringenberg, the group--Ringenberg, Warner Hodges (guitar), Kenny Ames (bass), and Perry Baggs (drums)--hasn’t officially broken up. But when Baggs announced his retirement from steady gigging last year on the eve of a European tour, the Scorchers definitely took a hit. “It’s never been the same since then,” Ringenberg admits. “We’d replaced [original bassist] Jeff [Johnson] and got along all right, but replacing Perry, that’s like replacing Warner or me. I don’t think it can be done.”

To this end Ringenberg, now forty-four, has been honing his solo career, releasing Pocketful of Soul on his own Courageous Chicken label in 2000 and All Over Creation on Yep Roc Records last summer. Enriched with duets both high-profile (Steve Earle, BR5-49, Todd Snider) and low (the Wildhearts, Swan Dive, Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin), Creation is the most stylistically diverse and musically ambitious release of his career. It’s also the reason he’s on the road these days, adapting to the intimate demands of venues like the Blue Moon.

He takes the stage promptly at nine, decked out like an antebellum Southern gentleman, giving his acoustic guitar what-for, and singing an unplugged version of Creation’s lead track, “Honky Tonk Maniac from Mars.” To those in the crowd too young to remember Ringenberg in his heyday, a honky-tonk maniac from Mars is what he might as well be.

But gradually, even among those who’ve come to drink first and listen later, he makes converts. Whether it’s his charming performance of an unabashedly silly ditty destined for a forthcoming kids album or his breakneck bluegrass version of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” he knows how to work a room. By the time he’s finished charging through the Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated” (which he introduces as a "greater piece of twentieth-century American poetry than anything by T.S. Eliot or Samuel Becket") and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel,” he’s won over everyone but those who’ve been clustered around the bar all night. By the time he’s finished singing Hank Sr.’s “I Saw the Light,” literally unplugged and perched atop the bar itself, he’s won over even them.

“At first it was terrifying,” he says, referring to his middle-aged transformation into a one-man band. “I went from having the huge power of one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands ever to having just my little voice and my songs and my acoustic guitar.”

The terror, however, is rapidly subsiding.

“I’ve discovered that I do have twelve albums worth of good songs. When you walk into a room with that kind of material, you’re going to get something happening.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dr. John: Hoodoo You Love (1998)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer....)


Considering rock 'n' roll's dual emphasis on the individual male singer, its roll call of great, instantly identifiable male voices is surprisingly short: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Robert Plant--even allowing for borderline calls like the solo Beatles, the list barely comes to a dozen. All of which puts Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, the possessor of a great, instantly identifiable rock 'n' roll voice if ever there was one, in some very select company.

Those who doubt Rebennack's qualifications need only listen to Anutha Zone, his new album for Virgin Records and the twenty-fourth official solo release (give or take a live album or compilation or two) of his long and varied career. His most commercial offering in more than a decade, Anutha Zone finds him not only giving slyly sinister voice to his trademark voodoo-inflected musings but also doing so amid some uncharacteristically hip accompaniment.

On paper, with two tracks apiece featuring the British tripsters Spiritualized ("Hello God," "John Gris"), members of Portishead and Primal Scream ("Voices in My Head," "Sweet Home New Orleans"), and Paul Weller, Jools Holland, and other assorted Britrockers ("Party Hellfire," John Martyn's "I Don't Wanna Know About Evil"), the album looks like a desperation move--the Dr. John equivalent of a Frank Sinatra-duets album. On the CD player, however, Anutha Zone cuts a warm, funky groove, the richness of which is, if anything, enhanced by the pop savvy of the Doctor's youthful collaborators.

"I was familiar with Supergrass and Primal Scream because my kids listen to their records," says Rebennack, "and I'd recorded with Jools Holland and some of the other people [he appears on Spiritualized's 1997 album, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating], but I wasn't familiar with Portishead, and I hadn't heard Ocean Colour Scene or the Beta Band. John Leckie, my producer, said, 'Well, we'll try this, and if it works, cool. If not, we'll just go do a record with your band in the States.'"

They ended up doing both. "We cut half the record at Abbey Road Studios in London. Then I had to come back to do some gigs in the States, and at the end of those, I caught the flu. So instead of going back to London, we cut tracks in New York with my band." The album's transatlantic plot thickened. "John started mixing the stuff we'd cut at Abbey Road in New York. Then, when we went back to gig in Europe, he started mixing the stuff we'd cut in New York at the Townhouse Studio in London. By using real studio tricknology he made it all sound real cohesive."

Rebennack will turn fifty-six, fifty-seven, or fifty-eight this fall (depending on whether one believes his Virgin bio, his autobiography, or The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll respectively--"I'm not too good at names, dates, and places," he chuckles), and he uses words like "tricknology" a lot. His vocabulary, like his hometown of New Orleans, bears the traces of many traditions and subcultures.

Rebennack has traveled down more back roads, dark alleys, and dead ends than most Grammy-winning legends of indeterminate age. These travels were the subject of his 1994 as-told-to autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon (St. Martin's). In it, Rebennack shared details about his New Orleans upbringing, his days in the mid-'60's as an El-Lay session musician (On Sonny Bono: "[E]very song he wrote used the same two chords over and over"; on Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound": "[I]n New Orleans we put out just as much sound with only six guys"), and his nearly life-long heroin habit, which he finally kicked in 1989.

According to Rebennack, he dictated the book to his co-author, Jack Rummel under both financial duress and the influence of "lithium poisoning." "There's a lot of confusement over things I put and didn't put in that book," he explains in typical Dr. John slang. "It was writ in the situate where I was on a drug called lithium that I didn't know I was being poisoned by at the time. If I hadn't been in the jackpot coming out of a rehab owing the IRS a whole bunch of money--I couldn't even pay the band--I probably would've waited a while to write it. But that's how life is. You do what you do when you do it, and it's done and did-with now."

One statement in the book that he still stands by is his contention that he's more of a "shucker" than a singer. "I consider Johnny Adams and Aaron Neville singers. Art Neville's a singer. Chuck Carbo's a singer. Jimmy Scott's a singer. Whatever knowledge I have of singing comes from being a songwriter and showing singers my songs from back in the game." In other words, when he worked as a studio musician, songwriter, and producer. "I wrote a lot of songs, and I could shuck my way through them enough to show somebody where I thought the melody and the groove should go. What gave me the balls to sing was hearing some early Bob Dylan records and working sessions with Sonny and Cher. When I did the first Dr. John record, I was planning to get [the New Orleans singer] Ronnie Barron to be Dr. John, but that didn't work out, so I just got an attitude and did it. I figured it'd be a one-off deal. I didn't have a clue that thirty-some years later I'd still be doing that."

About his piano playing he remains more confident. It's his piano playing, in fact, that lands him more session work than practically any other big-name musician. One recent on-line search of his in-print appearances turned up ninety-eight albums, most of them by other artists. Still, as he nears the completion of his first heroin-free decade in years, it's his own plans that occupy his time. Anutha Zone itself was a Plan B. "A couple of years ago, some people were talking to me about doing a record with Dr. Henry Butler, a great piano player from New Orleans, and a record with Little Jimmy Scott. It didn't work out, but I thought it was one of my better ideas for a production at the time, and I'd still like to do it. Nobody had told me the idea was dumped anyways by the label, but then the people that makes records is usually the last ones to know something."

That's another theme of his book that Rebennack still stands by: the perfidy of the music industry. "Since I've been away from my old lifestyle, everything's been easier because it's more pleasant, but it ain't nothing to do with the business, and it ain't nothing to do with financially. I just live different." He pauses, then adds, "It's like the music is killer, but the business really sucks a big one."

Whether or not the music business really does suck a big one, Rebennack is certainly right about one thing: His current music is killer. Here's hoping that, his restless muse to the contrary, he spends a little more time in Anutha Zone before moving on.