Saturday, December 31, 2011

Eels - Electro-Shock Blues

Electro-Shock Blues (1998) ****

A five-star album if you are in precisely the right mood, a mere three-star album if you aren't:  you do the math.  Problem is, I haven't had a loved one die on me in quite a few years, so many that I have to think hard on it (not counting beloved pets, of course).  Yes, this is a concept album concerning the scythe of the Ol' Reaper, unmistakably inspired by a pair of recent deaths in E's nuclear family:  the lyrics are bluntly artless and there's no mistaking the specific subject matter, the specific real-life deaths that E is eulogizing on this long-player (and its great fault is that:  it's l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g).  The song-cycle begins by setting the scene of "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," from a drug-inflicted suicidal overdose, and matters do not get cheerier from there.  Luckily, as we have seen from my previous reviews, E is contemporary pop's meisterburger of despondent clinical depression infused in sickly sweet pop nougats, so it's a listenable pop album despite the morbid weight of the subject matter.  But boy, can it get rough going, and not just because of the lyrics.  The songs are so crushingly sad that E seems determined to avoid anything so trite as hooks:  an easy way in would make the songs seem too trivial, y'know?  Whatever, this is probably superior to any similarly hookless Lou Reed character-sketch concept LP, and just as fun (which is to say - no, not fun at all).  On the first few listens the album seems non-descript, an emotional and wordy confessional album that certainly benefited the artist's therapeutic purging more than the listener's auditory pleasure.  And in truth, none of the songs truly stand out as knock-you-out highlights:  it's a seamlessly flowing concept album, and unlike most concept albums, the songs really do need to be experienced together as an album's flow of tracks - the whole, in this case, genuinely is greater than the sum of its parts.  Many of the songs seem fragmentary, or are literally fragmentary, such as the aforementioned album opener, whose ghostly presence in background melody floats over the succeeding two tracks like - well, a ghost (and not just because track #2 is entitled "Going to Your Funeral").  The tracks aren't stitched together musically a la Abbey Road, but they do flow together in such a thematic way that it's difficult to imagine them as separable, or in any other sequence.

Which is another problem:  for whatever reason, E has decided to save the best for last.  There are good songs scattered throughout the first 11 tracks, particularly "Speed," a pretty acoustic ballad that is only marred by a wincingly trite lyric, "Life is funny, but not ha ha funny," that bumps up like an uncomfortable lump in the throat.  Oh well, he's not the world's greatest lyricist, even if he does manage the ocassional coup, such as this album's most oft-quoted line, "Grandpa's watching video porn / With the closed-caption on".  And there's the ocassional bad song, as well:  I know that the jazzy shuffle, "Hospital Food," is supposed to be a touch of goofy humor designed to lighten the painfully morbid mood, and I can see how it's necessary, but as E has no discernible gift for cracking a joke or even a smile, it comes as irritatingly hectoring.  But just as you're ready to write this off as a mildly interesting but unexceptional exercise in Plastic Ono Band self-confessional, beginning with track #12, E trots out his trusty acoustic and hits you over the head with his talent, as the remaining five songs are not only deeply, heartbreaking emotional (hell, the whole album is - have you been paying attention?) but effectively moving musically as well.  I suspect that the simple, unadorned singer-songwriter approach of the final five cuts (relatively unadorned - there's some rather obtrusive orchestration in the background) has everything to do with it.  Oh yes, I've dwelt so much on the lyrical side of things that I've almost forgotten to mention the actual music, haven't I?  There's a mild hip-hop influence that shows up most firmly (and a bit awkwardly) on the album's most commercial track, "Cancer for the Cure," (with a title like that for the catchiest A-side, you can see why this wasn't a blockbuster), and "The Medication is Wearing Off".  Mostly this is E-music, however, with toy-like children's instruments mixing with E's world-weary nicotine rasp, his confessional singer-songwriting with the musical focus squarely on the lyrics, and heavy-handed background orchestrations mixing with the conventional alt.rock. 

Best lyric:  "I was at a funeral the day I realized I wanted to spend my life with you."  Read that line again if you didn't get the tragic implication the first time around.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Oceans Apart

What would you do if you turned around and saw me
Not in a dream, but in a song?

Oceans Apart (2005) ****

After all these years, I've finally gotten the knack of discerning between Forster and McLennan.  Or rather to say, in their middle-age their styles have diverged substantially enough that even on first listen it's easy to spot who's who.  Would McLennan have opened an album with a jittery, paranoid and brittle rocker, "Here Comes the City," that awkwardly (but endearingly) drops a gratuitous reference to Dostoyevsky?  Well into his 40s, is Robert still trying to impress tantalizing librarians?  And the second track, "Finding You," with its clear-eyed soft-folk melodic strum and thrum, could only have flowed from the pen of Grant in his mellifluous middle age:  its instantly memorable lilt and tenderly poetic lyricism mark it as a clear highlight.  However, as on the previous album, Forster manages to come up with the smarter batch of tunes, mostly because they are smarter and tougher.  McLennan, traditionally the more pop-tuneful of the duo (Sir Paul to Bob's John), has grown more lush and atmospheric in his approach, and while I have no doubt that an entire album of lushly atmospheric soft-rock numbers would prove soporific, the flow of the 10 songs on this album (you expected a different number of tracks?) nicely balances the generally more pointed Forster numbers with the gentler McLennan tunes.  Not that Grant's anything approaching a slouch:  aside from penning the album's aforementioned highlight, he also snags in a few more with "No Reason to Cry," (which boasts an exquisite guitar solo), the lovely melodic wash of "Statue," the blink-and-it's-over-too-soon "Boundary Rider," and "This Night's For You," which adds some pleasingly coo-ing doo-wop "ba ba ba's" to the backing chorus, and all of which give Adult Alternative folk-pop a grand name.  Hmm, perhaps on second reflection, Grant's the clear winner this time out, with a stronger set of tunes despite the soft, blurry edges.  And with the exception of "Lavender," a straightforward ballad that gratingly lacks any discernable hook, none of Forster's tunes misfire, either.  Some might irk at "Darlinghurst Nights," dragging a little too long at 6 1/2 minutes, but hey - does the word Dylanesque mean anything to you?  The semi-autobiographical "Born to Family," in which Robert recounts of how he broke with the family tradition of hard, honest toil to follow the path he had to follow as a working musician, is another clear highlight.  And finally, rural elegy of "The Mountains Near Dellray," could be Forster's attempted rewrite of McLennan's classic from way back when "Cattle and Cane,"  - fittingly capping off the Go-Between's career, full circle with one of the strongest albums of their career, not to mention their most commercially successful:  after all this time, they were finally gaining the success and recognition they deserved, which makes Grant McLennan's death the year after this release all the more tragic.  From this evidence, the Go-Betweens could've kept cranking out quality albums at a steady pace until they were physically too infirm to pick up guitars.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Public Image Limited - The Flowers of Romance

The Flowers of Romance (1981) **1/2

Someone once quipped that John Lydon was the master of the influential but unlistenable, and this is one of those discs that is recommended listening for any adventurous music fan if only to try the limits of what you can define as 'listenable' (at least in a pop/rock context).  First, let's underline the difference between Metal Box and this followup, third PIL studio album:  no Jah Wobble.  Charming gent that Mr. Lydon is, he sheds members like a snake its skin, and this time out, he decided not to bother advertising for a replacement bassist.  Which means that the, ahem, 'tunes' revolve around Lydon's wailing over Martin Atkin's spare, tribalistic drums (well, how else can the music be described as anything but tribalistic when it consists of mostly drumming and vocal wailing and little else?).  Keith Levene is still present, but as a much more muted presence:  his contributions consist mostly of keyboard splashes (used as dry and minimalistically as anything else on the record), with his guitar only brought out occasionally as one more minor element of texture.  What it, in effect, amounts to is Metal Box II with all the bass parts deleted from the mix and subsequently much less interesting and much, much less danceable.  Oh, not that it's not interesting - the music carries the punk minimalist aesthetic to at least one of its logical conclusions:   drum'n'voice'n'cheap Casio.  The opening track sounds vaguely Arabic in its snakey call-to-prayer vocal wailing, but whether that was intentional or not - scratch me.  Maybe these potheads were adding some vinyl from Morocco to their steady diet of dub reggae.  The album also contains many stretches of instrumental meandering; perhaps that's why "Banging the Door," leaps out as the most memorable track, as it actually possesses a coherent and memorable vocal melody (chant, actually; I'd be hard to describe much of this music as 'melodic' in the traditional sense).  Have a I stressed enough how difficult this music is to get into?  If you want to clear a crowded room, this is one of those Top Ten 'Party Clearer' records, at least as far as nominally 'rock' albums are concerned.  This is Adam and the Ants' "noble savage drum drum drum" as conceived by John Cage, with all the fun sucked out of it.  Too monochromatically grim to take pleasure in the potentially colorful weirdness of the anti-pop concept.  As with Metal Box, PIL conjure a dour yet compelling atmosphere and proceed to coast on sheer sound for the entire album without writing any but the barest of 'songs'.  But as with most sequels, the quality is considerably inferior.  "No fun!"  But interesting.      

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Bright Yellow Bright Orange

I could carve you from memory and then carry you through these hills

Bright Yellow, Bright Orange (2003) ***1/2

These Antipodeans are genetically incapable of remotely approaching producing a less than excellent album.  However, they are approaching middle age and as expected growing mellower - much mellower.  Reconstituted as a four-piece with an anonymous rhythm section, this is the smoothest and most polished Go-Betweens album so far, which as you might have guessed isn't a particularly good thing:  gone forever are any potential rough edges or quirks as Forster/McLennan settle down into their comfy armchairs, kick up their legs on the coffee table, and swap guitars & vocals as they strum away at pleasantly predictable folk-pop tunes -  adult contemporary as a mug of hot cocoa.  Which is to say that this is the kind of album that 30 or 40something aging hipsters shall delight in whistling along to while they brew a hot cup of tea while perusing through the Sunday papers on a warm weekend morning, while youngsters baffled at where the Go-Betweens' vaunted greatness as opposed to mere goodness would be advised to look elsewhere.  All the classic elements are in place, but the combination of professionally lush production and mostly unambitious songwriting equals a surfeit of non-excitement.  It's a comfy album.  If this album were a household object, it would be a goosefeather pillow.  You don't expect wall-shaking excitement from a pillow, do you?  You want to snuggle it close to your bosom while sipping a mug of hot cocoa. 

There are precisely two of these ten tracks that leap out as classics as worthy as any in the Go-Betweens, both from the pen of Forster.  "Caroline and I," opens the album on a glorious note, by far the best song they've released since....ever?  The type of song that after you hear it for the first time you've got to hear it at least once more.....and once more, and then once more again, and again.  It's about Princess Caroline of Monaco, born in the same calendar year as Forster, and how their generationally conjoined lives did and didn't parallel.  The second instance comes later in the middle of the album:  "Too Much of One Thing," a dusty acoustic ballad that's so blatantly Dylanesque that it transcends Dylan - lengthy and repetitively hanging on a handful of chords and lyrically hypnotic.  And then you get several excellent songs, mostly on side one, which would earn four stars on its ownsome, and several rather ordinary songs, for which side two drags down the record's rating as a whole.  Researching the songwriting credits (which I have to do, as I still have trouble distinguishing Bob from Grant), I'm faulting McLennan:  his songs are, with the exception of "Poison in the Walls," much too laidback and self-satisfied.  Forster hits nearly all the highlights this time out, still penning literate story-tales ("In Her Diary") and sometimes even rocking out mildly ("Make Her Day").  Though to be fair, McLennan's "Old Mexico," is the album's sole other attempt at rocking.  Neither are particularly rocking, but in this context a much-needed jolt of electricity. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Fall - Shift Work

Shift-Work (1991) **1/2

More like Shit-Work, you ask me.  Not that this is doesn't go down easy:  the opposite the problem is - the once-mighty whirlwind of Fallnoisemakers proffering an entire album of relaxed, danceable soft-disco pop numbers?  Has the world gone mad?  I'm making too much of their change in direction; after all, it's not as if the previous album (excellento, 'twas) didn't possess its share of similar fare, and often to pleasing results.  And it's not as if "The Mixer," the one tune here I'd gladly slip onto a two-disc mix-tape best-of, isn't an unexpected triumph (synths & drum machine join hands with violin in tribute to a Madchester DJ of Jamaican extraction).  So maybe I'll just take the prosaic route and finger the main problem:  the songs just aren't very good.  Aside from "The Mixer," there's a fine if extraneous cover of the country greaser classic, "White Lightning," (must chug along with Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road), and a few other songs are....OK.  Mainly because Mark E. is almost always good for a chorus or five per album, even if he has the tendency (tendency?  A tendency?!) to ram that repetitive catchphrase chorus round and round and round into the goddamned ground ("They talk a lot'a wind, they talka lotta wind-ah, they talka lotta wind-ah, they talka lotta wind-ah").  And there's a genuinely pretty ballad for a change, "Rose".  Not much more to say about her besides she's pretty, though.  More like a pretty little high school girl than a genuine knockout, this "Rose" 'tis.  Pleasant when it passes you by, but....  That last sentence could pass for a description of the entire album, it could.  "The War Against Intelligence," and "Idiot Joy Showland," are pretty good catchphrases to build a song around, but as Elvis Costello once quipped about Morissey, a pity that Mark E. didn't bother to finish writing the rest of the song.  Again, that applies to most of the rest of the album.  It's not as if a change in direction to greet the '90s wasn't warranted, but in this case the results are less than satisfactory.  The band sound distressingly generic - almost any baggy-pants pop group could've recorded this music - and Mark E. seems out of place and adrift:  he's not blastering his usual blistering venom, but talk-singing in a manner that, whether he intended it or not (he probably didn't; flatly talk-singing was likely the best he could do for the vocals) comes across as detached and bored as a news announcer mouthing to cue-cards.  No passion in the vocals = no passion in the Fall.  A mildly danceable dance-pop album with some decent melodies:  the Fall can do (and have done) much better.

The two bonus tracks are worth a giggle:  more dance pop, but in one case ("Blood Outta Stone") more danceably anthemic and rock-driven than anything on the album proper, and in the other case ("Xmas With Simon") uproariously wittier. 

Listen to "The Mixer," though!  It's a good'un.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Go-Betweens - The Friends of Rachel Worth

I don't want to change a thing when there's magic in here

The Friends of Rachel Worth (2000) ***1/2

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly depending upon your perspective, Forster and McLennan reunite after a decade's separation and sound exactly the same as when they parted company.  During the intervening '90s they'd both released a succession of solo albums (which I have yet to hear, but I'm presuming sound exactly like the Go-Betweens), so this reunion sounds like the best tracks sifted from a pair of solo albums with an even 5 song/5 song split.  Flows seamlessly, as even after all these years I still can't tell whose songs are whose.  The other stylistic unity comes from their choice of backing band, indie-rock darlings Sleater-Kinney (whose music I've never cared for), which presents something of a problem:  frankly, their dry, ultra-drab perfunctory indie-punk drains the performances of all color - in other words, the music is plain and spare to the point of dullness.  "German Farmhouse," doesn't rock out as it intends to, and so gets by the way that every other song here does - solely upon the strength of Forster/McLennan's lyrics, laconic vocal delivery & attitude, and tunesmelodyship.  On the other hand, it is the songs that matter here, and Sleater-Kinney's faceless backseat musicianship never threatens to interfere with the two frontmen's folk-rock/pop.  So how do these 10 (as usual!) tunes stack up to the duo's classic '80s canon? 

Bad news:  they're not improving. 

Good news:  they're not declining. 

Neutral news:  they're running in place.

Remember how in my introduction I observed that the Go-Betweens' artistic curve resembled a straight line?  This is one of those albums I was thinking of when I came to that conclusion.  There are some obvious highlights, such as the sunny pop of "Going Blind," that hoists its deceptive cheeriness right next to "Streets of Your Town," which is to say it's the greatest Go-Betweens song ever if you're in the mood; the opener, "Magic in Here," which must have reassured Go-Betweens fans immensely back in 2000 with its reassuring quality underscored by the quite, erm, magical chorus refrain; the surging, almost-rockin' power-pop of "The Clock,"; the wistfully nostalgiac "Surfing Magazines,"; and the - heck, this is the Go-Betweens, every song has something to recommend for itself:  paragons of quality control these surf-baked Aussies have effortlessly matured into.  The only reason that this earns a lower than average score than the previous 4 or 5 albums is that, as I said, the band performances are rather lackluster.  Oh, and I find the Patti Smith tribute, "When She Sang About Angels," kind of awkward.  Do like the line about wishing that she'd namedropped Tom Verlaine instead of Kurt Cobain, though - the skinny-necked guitar wizard did have more talent than the scoliosis-infected suicide victim, IMAO.

Gene Clark & Carla Olsen - So Rebellious a Lover

So Rebellious a Lover (1987) ****

A surprising late-period comeback that showed that even a few short years from his premature death in 1991, Clark still possessed a surfeit of talent.  Of course he had more than a little help from his friends, as one tell from the billing and cover featuring the lovely Ms. Olson, a husky-voiced from the Textones who reminds me a bit of Lucinda Williams in voice, looks, and songwriting style.  This is a duet album in the truest sense of the word, being more or less evenly split between solo Carla showcases, solo Gene showcases, and tunes where they duet and harmonize in tandem.   The music?  As you'd expect from the blue-denimed cover, it's straight-up country rock, with a relaxed and understated band loping along pleasantly and professionally, with the occasional touch of instrumental color (Chris Hillman cameos on gorgeous mandolin on "Gypsy Rider").  Likewise, the songs themselves (in this kind of music, these are the focus, after all) are a well-chosen and pleasing mixture of traditional standards, Olson-penned tunes, and Clark-penned tunes, again roughly split proportionally three-ways.  What it adds up to is a first-rate country-rock album, modest in ambition but effortlessly achieving all it sets out to do.

Of the covers, their poignant duet of Woody Guthrie's eulogiac "Deportees" suits the standard far better than the Byrds' sprightliness did, and a reworking of the traditional Olde English ballad, "Fair and Tender Ladies," is nearly as breathtaking in its sad loveliness as "Scarborough Fair," though not nearly as ethereal.  John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night," gets a jaunty bluegrass reading that betters the somewhat abrasive original, and to bring matters full circle, Clark performs a soulful reading of another dead Byrds' song, "Hot Burrito #1" (here wisely renamed "I'm Your Toy").  It doesn't erase the memory of the definitive Gram Parsons original, but it's tastefully excellent.  And then there's Joe South's "Don't It Make You Want To Go Home," which is rather....hicky.  But not in a terribly bad way!  Actually pretty good.

But let's move on to the originals.  Olson's "The Drifter," and "Every Angel in Heaven," are compellingly literate and intelligent examples of Poetry-Major Grad-School Dropout country-rock (see: Williams, Lucinda; Kristofferson, Kris), compelling story-songs; but "Are We Still Making Love," is icky-some Harlequin-Romance-Reading Housewife country.  And so now we move on to the tunes you're really waiting to dig in this album for:  the small handful of Gene Clark originals.  Only "Gyspy Rider," truly earns its place in the canon, honestly, but how it does:  turn the lights down low, close your eyes, and drift away - this song is better than a lonesome midnight ramble.  "Del Gato," tells another fine story-song, though melodically it's a bit too similar to "Give My Love to Marie," from a previous album; and "Why Did You Leave," is sad and lovely, but eh - not much more to say about it. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Josef K - The Only Fun In Town

The Only Fun in Town (1981) ***

A noble failure:  noble because it is an earnest effort with interesting ideas and an intelligent, novel sound; a failure because it is lacking in truly memorable songs.  Drawing inspiration from the jittery rhythms, affectedly dry-throat vocals, burbling bass lines, and skinnily angular guitar hooks of the early Talking Heads (primarily) as well as Joy Division, first trio of albums era XTC, and the little johnny jewels of Television, Josef K (whose nerd-brain credentials are apparent in their horn-rimmed glasses name, and if you don't get the reference, you missed out on the literary classics the rest of us angsty teenagers were reading in high school), this Edinburgh quartet comes across most of all as a Scottish Feelies:  the emphasis is on the sound, groove, and texture of the skittery guitar ragas, with songcraft hooks and affectless vocals seemingly an apparent afterthought.  The formula is not merely right next door to another 1981 post-punk artifact several continents away - the Go-Betweens' Send Me a Lullaby - it sounds eerily almost exactly the same, from the literary pretensions, the dry-dusty vocals, the recorded in hallway closet production values, the raggedly white-boy skinny-funk of the guitar/bass/drums interplay.  The noticable differences are that Josef K aim as much for the dancefloor as the head, and lack any true traces of jangly folk-rock, though they are jangly:  which means that this foreshadows fellow Scotsmen Franz Ferdinand (who were no doubt aware of and influenced by Josef K - upon a few listens, the comparison is bludgeoningly obvious) and to a lesser extent NYC hipsters Interpol, by a good two decades. The interplay is engrossing in its highly accomplished amateurism, but - well, you know the standard complaint about so many early post-punk albums?  Yes, it really does all sound the same, which easily grows taxing even at a mere ten songs that rush by in little over half an hour (most of the songs hover around the 2 1/2 minute range, with only one tune barely over four minutes).  Which means that even upon the third or fourth close listen, it's difficult to tell most of these songs apart.  Eventual work reveals each song as a discrete entitity, but damned if it isn't work.  Which means that if you're expecting a track by track breakdown, or even a quick highlights/lowlights run-through - ha ha ha, you ain't getting one.  As close as I'm going to pay attention on the fifth or seventh listen, even with this album playing in the background as I type out this review, I'm stumped as to what to say about any individual track.  Uh, lessee, this one starts off with a moody bassline and has a snakey guitar hook -- wait, that's every single one.  The lack of memorable vocal hooks doesn't help.  Nevertheless, the album works as one tall, gangly rush of tumultous sound-groove, so if you're willing to be satisfied at that level and expect/demand no further, then dig in.  Not an accessible listen by any means (the band themselves considered it a failure to represent their sound, and parted ways immediately after the only album release on the legendary Postcard label), but not without its historical and artistic merits, though in hindsight (so many indie bands copped this sound in the '00s) the historical significance takes on a greater dimension.

The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (2002) ***

I almost forgot about this one, so my T. Keene page is now mildly out of chronological order.  Not that it matters:  this could have been released at any random point in the man's post-1986 career; it's not as if he's known for his dramatic shifts in style.  The problem with never changing your style is that, even if you keep releasing the same consistently good album year after year, at some point the listener grows understandably bored with the never-varying same old song.  I've read some who regard this as a particular low point, and while it may rank as the artiste's worst album (it runs neck and neck with his next one), it's still a Tommy Keene album - which means it's still highly listenable in its winning combo of punchy hard rock and keening melodic salvos.  But is it remotely exciting or interesting?  Is there anything, anything at all eyebrow-raising I can say about this album?  Yes, indeed, for as with most Keene albums, he does take at least a couple of mild ventures outside his comfort zone.  So I have precisely two interesting things to say about this CD:

1) "The Man Without a Soul," is an unpleasantly horny (instruments I speak of) attempt at swinging grit.  Fails miserably and is far o by far the album's worst (as in only actively unpleasant) track.

2) "The Final Hour," drags on for an unprecedented 16 1/2 minutes, but it's really only three separate Tommy Keene tunes inexplicably strung together into one suite.

And as typical of a late-period Keene album, he emphasizes his metallically biting guitar as much as his melodic craftsmanship, with the closer, "The Fog Has Lifted," the moodiest and most rock-oriented.  And again as typically, he kicks off the album with its best track, "Begin Where We End," a thrilling pop-rocker on the 1985 Replacements end of the rock spectrum.

Another tunefully crafted Tommy Keene album.  My duty as a reviewer concluded, can I go listen to something else?

(Again, no Youtubes.  Apparently his late-period albums play to an increasingly diminished fanbase.)  

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Fall - Extricate

Extricate (1990) ****

Their first post-Brix album is almost as major a stylistic lurch towards the mainstream as Brix's introduction of the Fall to cute little pop hooks was in the mid-'80s:  they'd been moving slowly towards this smoother, more polished direction for some time, but as the last couple of late '80s albums sort of blowed, you might have been forgiven for neither noticing nor caring.  The lyrics to "Black Monk Theme," might seem to be directed at Mark E.'s ex-spouse, but nope - it's a Monks cover!  A '60s garage rock cover with processed dance beats?  Mark (or someone in the band; remember, as a non-musician, he's probably not nearly as responsible for the Fall's music as we might assume) obviously was paying a close ear to the Madchester sound raving about their hometown in baggy pants at the time.  Fall fans must have come in for a shock to hear "Telephone Thing," danceably spacy funk that verges on hip-hop, as the initial single.  I'm of two minds about this album's centerpiece - certainly sounds like the obvious single, being insistently catchy, but it's also annoying - well, not the first time Mark's tried ramming a chorus unpleasantly down your throat (for instance, the entire Frenz album).  I'm of two minds about the album as a whole, actually.  On the one hand, it's a vast improvement over a period of sub-par efforts.  On the other, several of these songs sort of blow (but is that not true of every Fall album?) and the newly-found professional sheen of these cute little pop rockers takes some getting used to:  they don't excite me instantly the way that the clanging pound of the classic Fall did.  While it's definitely a return to form, does this really deserve the same rating as Grotesque?  After some earphone time investing, I say yeah.  Not a definite YEAH! but certainly a groovy yeah, because while it's not the most exciting Fall album, it's by far their most pleasant and listenable one so far.

One reason it goes down so easy is that unlike most other Fall albums, you can't begin to describe this as monochromatic.  Stylistically, it's all over the place, which explains the mild inconsistency - not every path the band trods works quite the way they intended.  But as is the case as you'd expect from a 14-song, hour-length CD, my highlights/lowlights and yours might not match up.  Some people may get not over the shock of Mark singing a tender ballad, "Bill is Dead,".....let me repeat that: 

Mark E. singing a tender ballad. unearth the affecting melody beneath.  No, I can't say it moves me to tears, mainly because it's got one incredibly dodgy lyric stuck in the middle that throws my sensibilities off ("Your legs are so cool," - couldn't you come up with better pickup line than that?).  "Popcorn Double Feature," is even better and might be my personal highlight, a violin-driven Dylanesque social commentary ballad that is.....a Searchers cover?  That makes it even cooler.  If I took out the scissors I'd probably start snipping with the goofy repeat of  "Black Month Theme II," and the slow grinding bore of "Chicago, Now," which nevertheless earns at least a couple of listens for its, "Do you work hard?  No - you don't," chorus.  Original guitarist Martin Bramagh returns for whatever reason, and his distinctively glassy chiming churns out some delightful surf-spy hooks on the pop-rockabilly numbers ("The Littlest Rebel"; "Hilary," a brilliant character sketch that boasts some Mark's best and most coherent (!) lyrics ever).  I suppose I could cut out "British People in Hot Weather," as well, since I'm not to keen on the Fall-with-horn-section, but the lyrics are funny enough for it to pass muster (Mark audibly starts cracking up at his own lyrics at one point).  The doomily psychedelic title track explores the intersection of electronic beats and mild blasts of screeching guitar noise, neatly pointing the direction the new decade --------------->

Where to begin for a Youtube?  This album is so "let's throw gum on the wall and see what sticks" that I'm not sure which track to present as most representative.  The big hit single?  Might as well parlez-vous....

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Last - L.A. Explosion!

L.A. Explosion! (1979) ***1/2

If all late '70s punky power-pop bands had sounded llike this, punk rock would never have happened - nor would it have needed to.  Frankly retro, the Nolte Bros. (Joe, Mike, and David, with distant cousin Nick not actually present but adding that crazy, drunken drug-addled uncle vibe:

meld the Beach Boys, British Invasion, and cheesily farfisa-driven mid-'60s garage rock into a highly enjoyable, if cheep-cheeply, thinly produced Cream.  (Actually, nothing sounding like Clapton & Bruce & Ginger, more like a tasty glob of Blues Magoo).  Joe's songs are led by the instrumental color flavored by keybist/flautist Vitus Matare (is that a real name?  Well, as likely as Jethro Tull), whose textures give the tunes a mildly sepulchral tone that situates a lot of the songs on this side of 'energetic melancholy'.  But not "This Kind of Feeling" - that's a blissful slice of innocent jangle-pop straight off the Flaimin' Groovy!  Or rather, an imitation of 1963 Beatles that's so perfectly copycat it manages to sound exactly as perfect as a track from the Groovies' Shake Some Action album released only a few years earlier (I'll review those guys someday, promise).  Thanks to Matare and the thin production, there's a pleasingly ethereal quality that adds a uniquely fragile touch to these energetic, tough melodic (and melodically tough) mid-tempo rockers.  In other words, it's one of those albums from the pre-technological days of yore in which the production 'flaws' become an integral part of the sound's charm.

Now, honestly, not all of these songs are clear winners.  There are several very ordinary and uninteresting tracks ("Walk Like Me," "Slavedriver,"  "The Rack," "Objections," "The Rack (Reprise)"), but the other 10 out of 15 tracks range from the great to good.  Except for the sleazoid cover of "Be-Bop-A-Lula," which flat-out sucks.  So that's 9 out of 15, still a pretty good batting average - about as good your average classic Byrds LP.  The killer tracks range from happy sunny pop ("This Kind of Feeling") to bitter sunny pop ("Someone's Laughing") to punky garage ravers ("I Don't Wanna Be In Love") to marching Battleship pop ("The Bombing of London") to cruising down the freeway pop ("Looking at You") to mild social criticism of the music industry pop ("Century City Rag").  My twin pair of personal standouts includes firstly the opener, "She Don't Know Why I'm Here," a dark, minor-key garage rocker that initially may seem unexceptional but over several listens proves the definition of a grower - ah, teenage angst; like a Moody Zombies gone Stonesy hard rock (note anguished raveup that explodes near the end).  Secondly, there's the flat-out nostalgia-fest of the surf-anthem, "Every Summer Day," (note the opening verses!).  It sounds like they're trying to sound like the Beach Boys ripping off Chuck Berry, and while this ain't "Fun Fun Fun," (what song could ever be?!) this sure is fun, fun, fun!!!  With three exclamation points!!!

In short, a delightful slice of nostalgic light entertainment, light in several senses (production, tone, effect) of the word.

P.S. Almost forgot about the bonus tracks.  Well, three of the six are merely inferior versions of album tracks, but the single version of "She Don't Know Why I'm Here," is substantially superior to the one found on the LP - but maybe that's just me.  Of the two B-sides, "Hitler's Brother," is a gratingly annoying punky throwaway, while "We're in Control," is tuneless freakout psychedelia that pulls out all the stops with backwards instruments, synth bloops, filtered vocals, excessively excessive.  Neither are truly worth your time.  So - only one bonus track worth hunting down.  But since the likelihood of your finding an original vinyl copy are as likely as the CD reissue w/bonus tracks going platinum, you'll get'em anyways.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Fall - I am Kurious Oranj

I am Kurious Oranj (1988) ***

This is music for a ballet.  I wish I could come with an opening sentence different from what every reviewer who's ever written about this album has opened their piece with, but "The Fall" and "ballet" is so jaw-stroking a juxtaposition that I need add no additional spice.  I've learned from experience that overspicing can ruin many a soup.  Always better to underspice when cooking because you can always add more spice later.  Anyway, this is indeed a kurious piece of product for the Fall, in a number of ways.  It follows in the same style as the last album, but with more emphasis on the musical side of things - songs are no longer merely catchphrases while the band desultorily plunks along, there are some actually interesting musical ideas going on.  But it's a half-step forward, half-back as this is thus far the most wildly inconsistent Fall album:  while the successful tracks are as good as any random Fallmusic, the other half are total crap.  I realize that some fans try to defend the fact that around 50% of this album is objectively worthless by citing the fact that much of this is incidental music for a ballet and thus must be taken in context, but when is that an excuse?  I'm not renting a DVD of the ballet (if such an item even exists), I'm listening to a CD sans visuals.  The music has to hold up as music.  Good thing that the good songs are a major improvement over The Frenz Experiment's.  There's quite a bit of creative recycling over past Fallmusic on this album (see, familiarity with a band's back catalogue is crucial for a reviewer):  the opening track reworks "Hip Priest," (and is repeated itself in reworked form as the closing track); the second track throws in lyrics from even further back, Slates' "An Older Lover, Etc." ; and what track from the preceding album does "Last Nacht" remind you of?  Well, at least "Last Nacht," is a vast improvement, and not just because it's much (thankfully), much shorter.  Mark E. is not merely self-plagiarizing:  after getting out of his system a spoken-word rant criticizing dog owners, "Jerusalem," sets lyrics copped from William Blake to a melody lifted from an Olde English hymn, while Mark rants sarcastically about welfare-leeches blaming all their personal ills on the government.  Other worthwhile tracks include the pretty instrumental title track; the funk-monster, "Wrong Place, Right Time," which may or may not have been inspired by the Dr. John chestnut of similar titleage; "Cab It Up," in which Mark E. semi-raps mostly indecipherably but I do make out a clear reference to "texting it uptown," - holy shit, in 1988?!  Then there's the sea-shanty-ish, "Van Plague," recounting a tale of sea-borne plague - how come no one ever mentions this tune?  It's my favorite!   And then, like I said, there may be moments here and there, but I'm not going to waste much time dispatching such disposable crap like the dead-dull acoustic balladry of "Guide Me Soft," which sounds like a two-year old picked up the guitar line, or the excruciating cut'n'paste mashup of "C.D. Win Fall," which recycles "Hip Priest," one time too many, or the three or five other crap tracks I haven't mentioned yet.

Hits or misses?  Yes, O Yes.

Just Another Pop Album: The Titan Sampler

Just Another Pop Album: The Titan Sampler (1980) ****

Ultra-obscure compilations from local record labels (in this case, Kansas City, MO) are usually the sort of grab-bag that might, might, maybe by a longshot if you're lucky contain one or two genuinely good songs and a whole bunches of barely listenable, derivative amateurism from bar bands that shall forever and justly be stuck in beer-splattered redneck dives for the rest of their lives as working musicians.  Obviously going by my rating this one's very much an exception.  And judging by the title, you'd assume that the chosen genre is power-pop, and you'd be dead to rights. Apparently there's a two disc, 42-song disc, Titan: It's All Pop! compiling everything the label released during its lifetime, but since I haven't listened all the way through that, I'm reviewing the only compilation longplayer released by that label during its brief lifespan:  13 songs, four artists, who all sound like you'd expect - late '70s Mid-Western power-pop, shades of the Raspberries (especially the vocals), Big Star, Cheap Trick, Shoes, etc.  Let's proceed in the alphabetical order emblazoned on the cover jacket.

1) Arlis! - Not merely Arlis, but Arlis!  Rather hubristic as they are most prosaic of the bands here, profferring mildly generic, rockist power-pop with a raspy singer who sounds like Jon Waits (The Babys?  "Missing You"?  Anybody missing that guy at all?).  Of their two songs, "Good Friends," is merely ordinary and slightly annoying, but "No Way Baby" is a fine Rod Stewart-ish stomper.

2) The Boys - Not to be confused with the late '70s U.K. power-poppers, or the jillion other bands adopting the moniker.  Fortunately, their name is their weakest link:  these boys are really fine, fine, fine.  Their four songs are all this side of excellent, with "We're Too Young," (not to be confused with the classic doo-wop number) surging, storming power-pop worthy of belonging next to the same breathless rush as the U.K. Boys' "Brickfield Nights," - which is to say, as danceable as power-pop gets.  "(Baby) It's You," (not to be confused with the Bacharach/David chestnut - sigh, words weren't these Boys' strong point) which inexplicably precedes with a bit of spoken-word French, is almost as fine.  Perhaps with a more distinctive name people would've taken up notice of this band.

3) Gary Charlson - Perhaps the most talented musician on the Titan roster, Charlson comes across as a corn-field bred Dwight Twilley, a comparison not disspelled by the opening track of this compilation, a cover of Twilley's "Shark."   Never exactly one of my favorite Twilley tunes (I find its "I'm a shark, you're a shark, in the dark!" chorus hokey, childish, and annoying) but he does a decent enough job on this Twilley rocker.  "Goodbye Goodtimes," is another dud, with its hokey sax edging him uncomfortably close to Eddie Money territory, but his other two tunes are easily the compilation's highlights.  "Brown Eyes," is a pounding kiss-off that rocks punchily, while "Not The Way It Seems," is a sheer rush of jangly breathiness and loveliness, and earns a spot on my Top 100 Poppinjayest Power-Pop Songs of All Time.

4) J.P. McClain & the Intruders - These dorks sound so derivative of Elvis Costello that it's laughable, but hey - there are worse influences.  Their three songs range from a punchy This Year's Model pleader ("Baby Don't Laugh") to a Get Happy!!! piano-soul stomper ("Just Another Pop Song") to Armed Forces lush balladry ("The Last Song (Dry Your Eyes)").  I doubt I'd be able to take an entire J.P. McClain & the Intruders album seriously, but in this context they're highly entertaining - they do the Declan McManus pastiche professionally and admirably well.  Completely lacking in bitingly clever wordplay, though - lyrically, they're quite bland.  Do your homework better next time, guys!

Obviously this long, long, long out of print LP is unavailable on CD (was it even released on cassette?), unless you pick up that two-disc comprehensive I linked above, but thanks to the wonders of MP3 blogs - you guessed it:

And yes, Virginia, we have YouTubes!

None for Arlis! and J.P. & the Intruders. Nobody cares about them.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Killing Joke - Night Time

Night Time (1985) ***1/2

The maxim, "Never judge a book by its cover," isn't quite bullshit but in my experience it's often not quite true, either:  nine times out of ten a glance at the front jacket of an album can tell you exactly what sort of genre the band is aiming for (and the fashion styles of the band photo on the back cover can pinpoint the exact decade it was released, if not exact year).  This cover screams 1985 and guess what?  It sounds like 1985, too.  It's glossily overproduced in that quaint mid-'80s fashion.  But even though it's much smoother, with the guitars gliding and glistening rather than grinding and galvinating, and Jaz actually singing rather than hoarsely shouting, and the rhythm section muted to a standard 4/4 tom-tom rather than primal pound (a thinly produced engineering error, presumably), and it's considerably more melodic, with actual verse/chorus/chorus traditional song structures rather than tribal chants, this is still more of a hard rock than synth-pop album.  Oh, it teeters near the edge of mid-'80s Cure, but guitars still dominate, even if Geordie's riffs serve more as angular pop hooks than skull-crushing rhythms.  In any case, the sellout worked, with the Joke scoring their first Top of the Pops chart entry, the broodingly bass-driven "Love Like Blood," which would score even higher if re-released in today's vampire-soaked media environment.  Kids today - what the fuck is wrong with them?  What the hell is up with this hokey Twilight shit?  Speaking of hokey, that's the biggest obstacle a 21st century listener shall have to overcome when piping these digital waves through the headphones of your portable listening device - the sound is so stereotypically darn mid-'80s!    To be fair, this also sounds a bit like Jane's Addiction (minus the metal) or Jesus & the Mary Fucking Chain (minus the cornball amplifier fuzz).  Influence, they call it.  And as every reviewer post-1991 is obliged to point out, the final track, "Eighties," was shamelessly nicked as the basis for Nirvana's "Come As You Are."  That out of the way, let's get on to the other standout tracks:  "Kings and Queens," possesses a hypnotic raga-punk swirl of a solo that swings off immediately after the chorus, and "Europe," likewise boasts an autobahn-worthy drive & surging pop chorus.  There are four other songs (to make 8 total, in all, in toto, in sum) but they aren't as worthy, so I won't mention them. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Killing Joke - Fire Dances

Fire Dances (1983) ***

This is what we call a transitional album, kiddies.  Reforming cold on the heels of a vacation in volcanic Iceland, the Joke rejuvenate from the sonic dead end of their third LP (see the pun?) with a sharp nudge forward into the melodic poppy fields of later '80s KJ.  But not too poppy, see; mostly this album conjures the adjective 'tribal' - moreso than any other Joke album.  If I were a lazy reviewer I'd base that last sentence entirely upon the opening track, the blatantly titled, "The Gathering," which lyrically calls itself forward as a rallying cry for afterdusk pagan bonfire ritual.  Or maybe just spotty goth-punks hoisting lager pints in a dingey north England dive at 2 A.M.  But since I'm not that lazy of a reviewer, I did listen to the next nine tracks as well, and guess what?  As with all Killing Joke albums, the sound is ridiculously monochromatically uniform, so the opening track tells you all you need to know - you like it?  You'll like the rest of the album, since it's all more of the same.  And as always with all Killing  Joke albums, there are some duffers:  "Dominator," does indeed dominate as the painfully suckiest track, proving once again (see the debut's "Change") that these extremely white and extremely English boys should never try to get down and funky.  (You say, "Jaz isn't white!  He's a Brahmin Indian!"  Well, the sitars and ragas of India don't exactly spell funk, either.)  Overall this album equals concurrent Siouxsie & the Banshees (jangle-goth) + Adam & the Ants (songs centering around tribal drumming) + the last couple of Killing Joke albums (they've still got their unique style and there's no mistaking who this is).  It seems that the Joke are deliberately going for a 'tribal' concept here - rock'n'roll as primitive Druidic jig around the bonfire - with "Song and Dance," making the link most explicit.  In other words the songwriting's purposefully simplistic and chanty ("Fun and Games," "Feast of Blaze," but those are just random grabs, I could've pointed to any track on the album).  The title track - "Let's All Go (To The Fire Dances)" - which inexplicably arrives at track #9 instead of #1 (or #2, "The Gathering," being such a fitting opener), is easily the catchiest and most fully developed anthem here, and mildly overshadows the rest.  It points the way to the full-blown dive into goth-pop anthemic triumph that would flower upon their commercial breakthrough a couple of years later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tommy Keene - In the Late Bright Light

In the Late Bright (2009) ***1/2

One good thing about Tommy Keene's style of music is that you know almost instantly, once the needle hits the groove/laser hits the disc/bytes upload to the speakers, is whether it's good or not.  And I recognized upon first listen that this was Keene's finest achievement in literally over 20 years - yes, it's now around a quarter century as I write this in 2011, since 1986's signature Songs From the Film.  At this late date, Keene's non-likely to convert the uncoverted, but for fans, this is a more than welcome return to form after his decade-long drought.  It would be a mistake to expect any innovations or surprises from a man now past 50 and deep within the third decade of his musical career, and truth be told, Keene doesn't do anything here that he hasn't done better in the past; it's just that, like I said, 'better' means all the way back to the mid-'80s, and Keene hasn't sounded this fresh and invigorated in years.  He's rocking harder than ever, but he's finally found a way production-wise to not do so unpleasantly - the rock crunches and punches smoothly and punchily, not metallically and gratingly (see "Please Don't Come Around").  As trending with late-period Keene, he's emphasizing his guitar chops nearly as much as his pop-hooky songwriting, and while the instrumental "Elevated," demonstrates that he can shred and tear noisily for a Jeff Beck acolyte at mid-century, it's admittedly the song stuck in the middle of the album that I always hit the skip button for:  there's really no need for it to exist except as a showcase.  The album opens with the 2:15 rush of the snappy and feelingly fragmentary title track, which shows that Keene has obviously been listening to pal Robert Pollard's GBV records, and while the second track, "A Secret Life of Stories," painfully emphasizes one of Keene's achilles heels - his clumsy rhyming schemes (there's no excuse for using the word "Hortense" in a pop song, ever - c'mon, "mints"?  "evidence"?  "wince"?  Anything would be better) - it's one of the album's highlights despite its lyrical shortcomings.  I'll conclude by noting that "The Right Time to Fly," is perfectly perfect perfection of jangly-surging power-pop, and after that there's no longer much point in track by track poring over every one of these 11 tracks:  if you know Keene, you know what to expect.  The minor variations of sound and quality of his post-'80s albums all come down to exactly how well he performs his patented'n'predictable formula each time out.  Well, good news - he's back at the top of his game.  Honestly, this is a 3.75 and thereby might inch to a low four star rating, but he's not offering anything we haven't heard before here.  All Tommy Keene albums are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again

Back to the grad school grind!  So don't hold your breath awaiting the daily updates you've gotten used to over the summer.

And I'm still only halfway through the Fall catalogue.....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Artists Whose Stories Beg for a Biopic (Pt. 1)

1.  Fleetwood Mac - I'm surprised that a major Hollywood biopic hasn't been made about one of the world's biggest-ever selling acts, whose story behind Rumours is tailor-made for the soaps - the two couples breaking up at the same time, with the romantic tensiions fueling their best-ever set of songs that catapulted them to superstardom with the-then biggest-selling LP of all time.  And the drummer slept with both Stevie and Christine.  Lucky freakishly tall dude.  I suppose what's holding them back is that they're all still alive.  But hey - '70s rock superstars!  One word:  c-c-c-cocaine!  Scarface mountains of it.

2.  Lynyrd Skynyrd - These guys were gen-u-wine Huck Finn archetypes from Deliverance country, with Ronnie Van Zandt not so much a bandleader as a boxing referee constantly being called to service backstage to sort out fistfights between the members.  The story of how rednecks in the 1970s South came to embrace long-haired hippie rock'n'roll.  And the horrific plane crash punctuates a dramatic career arch.  The aftermath of the survivors would be an interesting story, too, but perhaps too dark and depressing (I'm looking at you, Artimus "Pedo" Pyle).

3.  Robert Johnson - Hellhound on my trail, sold my soul to the devil to play the blues, died from drinking poison whiskey from messing round with another man's woman.  Yes, they sort of made a movie about this called Crossroads, but come on - Ralph Macchio guitar dueling with Steve Vai?  They can do better than that.

4.  The Stranglers - Dark and sleazy does it every time.  This one's got it all:  punk, karate, hard drugs, wifebeating, prison sentences, flatmates getting raped, dangling journalists from the Eiffel Tower, taking on the Clash and Sex Pistols singlehandedly in a bar brawl, strippers onstage at a major rock festival (and the bass player joining in the naked fun), acid-damaged UFO conspiracy theories, the European Union, ice cream vans.  Poetic license would have to be taken by having Hugh immediately quit the band after being beaten up backstage by JJ Burnel, instead of hanging around for a few years to provide a shitty album as his finale.  And to be an honest portrait it's definitely got to be at least NC-17.  

5.  Badfinger - Depressing?  Um, yes, which is why this movie shall never be made.  Hollywood demands a happy ending and there's no way the two main frontmen committing suicide (several years apart) is going to give filmgoers that coda.  But a compelling story of how talented musicians get fucked over by the biz - that it is.  Plus there's the Beatles connection.

6.  Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young - Speaking of drugs, how could a story involving David Crosby, Stephen "Steel Nose" Stills, Neil "Airbrushed Cokebooger" Young, and um, that other dude, not be interesting?  And personality clashes galore with those four massive egos in the room!  The story even has a perfect opening scene, with Neil and Stephen running into each other on a traffic-jammed LA freeway as one of them travels cross-country to find the other and form a band.  (I forget which)  Five decades in which we witness the hippie generation growing older, and four men drop or maintain friendships.

7.  The Byrds - Surprisingly, the biggest-selling American rock band that has not had a major film made about them (the Beach Boys and the Doors and the Temptations all have theirs; CCR's story simply isn't all that interesting).  Watch as Roger McGuinn struggles to maintain a band named The Byrds as every single original member quits in succession!  Feel Gene Clark's fear of flying!  Catch trust-fund hippie Gram Parsons invent country-rock!  Weep as the original lineup reconvenes in the mid-'70s only to sabotage their comeback by saving all of their best songs for their solo albums!

8.  The Velvet Undergound - Maybe this shouldn't count.  Nico has her own film about that vapid, uninteresting, and highly dislikable racist Aryan bitch (an objective description), and there are several films that deal tangentially with the Velvets scene; but there's not a film directly about the band itself.  The backdrop of Andy Warhol's Factory and his circus of freaks alone makes such a film a must-make.

9.  Jefferson Airplane - I view this as a rom-com in which our heroine, Grace Slick, proceeds to fuck every guy in the band in her quest for true love.

10.  Pink Floyd - Other than the fact that the former members of Pink Floyd are all as bitter and litigious as hell (and rich enough to back it up), I can't see why infamous history of constant feuding can't make for great entertainment.  With the sad, slow decline of a musical genius descending into drug-fueled insanity.  Shine on, you crazy, bitter old diamonds.  You can't be sued for defaming a dead person, so maybe then this flick shall be made.

P.S.  The Band don't count because of The Last Waltz.

This has more or less turned out to be the boomer edition of this list - tune in next week (or the next couple days, whenever) for the post-punk candidates.  And just to get things straight, I mean major Hollywood biopic:  all of these bands have videotape releases of grainy interviews and concert footage, but who cares except for fanboys?  Pink Floyd almost don't count because of The Wall, but then I decided that rock operas shouldn't count, either.  Appearing in Woodstock: The Movie doesn't count, either.  No, I want Anne Hathaway or some other foxily vampish brunette to play the role of Grace Slick - that's the sort of thing I'm talking about. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tommy Keene - Crashing the Ether

Crashing the Ether (2006) ***

In which the most strikingly consistent man in showbiz comes perilously close to making a bad record.  The problem isn't so much the songwriting - when he's on, he's on, as "Quit That Scene," ranks among his finest ever, and the Based on Happy Times-ish "Driving Down the Road in My Mind," sits well next to any random melancholy Keene ballad of wistful listlessness.  The sprightly "Warren in the '60s," and the lovely "Wishing," (which unfortunately emphasizes his annoying habit of lazily tossing off obvious rhymes) are up to his usual standards as well.  But the album's misfirings are apparent from the first track, "Black and White New York," which lives up to the crashing part of the album's title, in more senses than one:  it's a thuddy metallic drag that sorely lacks Keene's usual melodic touch, substituting loud rock dynamics for pop tunecraft.  Things right themselves swiftly with "Warren in the '60s," and the first half of the album is mostly excellent, containing all the highlights I've previously mentioned.  But the second half is much, much weaker, with the final three or four songs a complete mess - a string of unpleasantly noisy rockers that makes one wonder if Keene had misplaced his talent by fancying his strengths were that of a guitar hero rather than tunesmith.  "Texas Tower 4," drags on its hard rock bombast for over six excruciating minutes, closing the album on a harshly bum note.  Maybe all those Mission of Burma records rubbed off on Tommy the wrong way, or he's trying to keep current with grunge fashion ten years too late, and while experimentation and fucking with the formula are important directions for any artist to pursue, as a hard rocker Keene's always made a much more compelling Alex Chilton than a Ted Nugent.

Youtubes?  No puedo encontrar los videos.  Tommy Keene videos are extremely hard to find, period, much less any for songs from one of his least popular albums.

Keene Brothers - Blues and Boogie Shoes

Blues and Boogie Shoes (2006) ***

Essentially what you get is a Tommy Keene record sung by Robert Pollard.  I don't know whether they were there together in the studio or whether Keene mailed in the music and Pollard recorded the vocals over the tapes (it may very well have been the former, but too often sounds like more of the latter).  Keene's guitar playing is keen as keenful and his melodic arrangements are as intact as ever, and Pollard is Bob, haphazardly tossing off his trademark ready-made vocal melodies to infectious effect.  The problems are twofold:  the post-Isolation Drills uniformity of sound (all steely guitars cruise controlled at midtempo except for a few acoustic balladic breathers), and as I implied in my second sentence, the fact that Keene and Pollard don't quite mesh.  Keene's music sounds as meticulously crafted as usual, but Bob's vocal melodies sound as slapdash and written in five seconds as usual - which can work if Bob's going for spontaneous and lo-fi, but Keene's work is hi-fi and carefully non-spontaneous (look at how long the man takes between albums.  Now, compare and contrast with Pollard's recording release schedule.)  Long point made short, I can't hear these songs and not wonder how much better they'd be if they'd had Tommy singing them.  And for all his obvious rhymes and romantic cliches, at least that's preferable to lyrics that make literally no sense at all, as is Pollard's stock in trade.  So, no emotional heft, that's one point off.  It's not as if this 40 minute, 12 track longplayer doesn't have some fine tunes up its sleeve, and in GBV (but definitely not Keene) tradition the highlights are scattered all over the place in non-chronological order.  Thus, it blasts off on a classic 50-second GBV rocker note, "Evil vs. Evil," which is catchy and strong in large part because of its breathless brevity - a sheer jolt of caffeine.  "Death of a Party," happens to be one of the stronger tunes Pollard has put his name to since GBV broke up, and buried near the tail end of the CD is "This Time Do You Feel It?" which contains a brilliant vocal hook (so I see that Pollard's good for something).  Bob's not needed at all on "The Camouflaged Friend," which is a guitar instrumental.  "Island of Lost Lucys," is a pretty ballad, and tracks like "A Blue Shadow," rock anthemically, but you'd expect all of those things from a GBV album (Tommy Keene, too - "The Naked Wall," being the most Keene-ish of these tracks).  As most of Pollard's post-'90s albums have been, the music is non-lo-fi, unadventurous jangly hardish-rock -  but we can hardly blame Bob for that in this instance, now can we?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gene Clark - Firebyrd

Firebyrd (1984) ***

Sadly, the '80s got to Gene the same as they did to every other '60s dinosaur, but since Clark was on a low, low budget (and does it sound like it) the results aren't nearly as bad as they could have been.  On first listen, you might be forgiven for thinking you've picked up the wrong CD by mistake, as the low-rent sound and performances make it sound like one of those generic re-recordings of Classic Songs By Classic Artists that were floating around during the times - y'know, the Temptations as performed by the California Raisins, with a tinny glossy sheen shorn of the passion and a tinny glossy drum sound.  At first I wasn't quite sure if it was Clark at all, as even his trademark shakey baritone sounded distressingly generic on the harmonies, but relax - it is him.  This is a funny little album, and I do mean little:  at only nine tunes, four of which are quite unnecessary covers, it fits the definition of skimpy.  But '80s Gene Clark fans had to make do with what little (very little) he had to offer that decade, and considering the scarcity of post-'70s Gene Clark material, this is grudgingly essential for diehards.  Bad news first:  the remakes of Byrds classics are OK enough ("Mr. Tambourine Man," "Feel a Whole Lot Better,") but will never, ever, never displace the sterling originals and are beyond superfluous, the spitting definition of totally non-essential.  "If I Could Read Your Mind," likewise is a fair reading, but I've already got Gordon Lightfoot's (a god amongst moosejockeys) greatest hits; "Vanessa," isn't that bad, but I have no idea what the original sounds like.  Of the five remaining Clark originals, "Rodeo Rider," is too hickily country for my tastes, and "Blue Raven," is a less successful sequel to "Silver Raven," in which Clark rejoinds his darkly lit No Other classic with a tune swearing to his love that these days he's in a sunnier mood.  That leaves three Clark winners:  "Something About You Baby," "Rain Song," and "Made For Love," which land him back on his feet as a fine pop-rock/country songwriter.  Like I said - mighty skimpy.  But this album is a never less than pleasant listen, and if it's short & lightweight, who doesn't mind hearing "Feel a Whole Lot Better," for the 50th time, even in this alternate '80s version?