Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let It Be vs. Let It Be


Usually the eventual outcome of these battles can be as much of a mystery to me as you, dear reader - I don't know exactly how the votes are going to tally up, and I've surprised myself on occasion (notably the Byrds' debut trouncing Please Please Me - shocker!). However, in this particular case, I've got a feeling (pun intended) that it's a foregone conclusion. This is one of more logically fitting matchups (same title, you see?) from two bands that, in their radically different ways, both represented their respective generations.  There are stylistic similarities as well: it's as close as the Fabs ever came to off-the-cuff, garage rock territory, and well, the 'Mats - they defined sloppy, ragged-but-right, off-the-cuff garage rock.  Rough edges have their charms, yet while in the Beatles' case Let It Be sometimes comes across as a rough set of demos needing more polish (contrasting uncomfortably with the Phil Spector produced tracks that suffer from way too much polish), when it comes to the Replacements, rough, sloppy edges are an intrinsic part of the charm.  But don't feel too sorry for the Fabs - what we have here is arguably the Beatles' second-weakest album (after the 1963 debut) up against Westerberg & the Stinson Bros.' finest (barely over) half hour. (Arguably)  One more note:  to shoe-horn this in, I'm not counting "Dig It", since it's not a real song, and really only works in context as a jokey, deflationary intro to the pompous "Let It Be".

1.  "Two of Us" vs. "I Will Dare" - Bromance vs. Romance.  Paul bidding John a tender farewell to their working friendship, or Paul self-deprecatingly taunting a girl onto a date.  (There's a Paul leading each band, but trust me, you ain't a getting them confused.)  A tough one, as Sir Paul's folk-pop ode to the warm ties of close, long-term friendship has long been my sentimental favorite on this particular record.  On the other hand, self-deprecating fumbles at romance is just what Paul W. does (heck, it's what I do as well), and there's a Peter Buck mandolin solo.  Plus, "cigarettes and fingernails, that's a lousy dinner."  Replacements 1, Beatles 0

2.  "Dig a Pony" vs. "Favorite Thing" - Once again, a very good Beatles song.  However, unlike "Two of Us", not top tier and certainly not a classic.  Even when John was throwing it away, he could be great.  And then there's the finest, fastest, hardest, sloppiest slice of garage rock on this particular Replacements disc, which in other words means it's one of the finest, fastest, hardest, sloppiest slices of garage rock essayed by any garage band from Nuggets to the White Stripes.  Not a fair contest.  The moment when Paul moans "you're my favorite thing" over and over and then screams "but I'm NOTHING!" and Bob Stinson soars into his wailing, barely in control 10 second solo - that may be the most thrilling 20 second stretch those Minneapolis misfits ever achieved while half-drunk and in the throes of a full-on crush.  Replacements 2, Beatles 0

3.  "Across the Universe" vs. "We're Coming Out" - John's melodic highlight of Let It Be, if you can ignore the flaky Eastern mysticism (it was written on the sojourn to India), and the only Lennon tune on this album that wasn't a throwaway.  The Replacements track is a hardcore punk raveup that segues jarringly into Tom Waits-style bar room piano swing at close to the halfway mark.  I'm handing this one to the Beatles, since the hardcore punk half is ugly and half-assed, much as I enjoy the angrily bitter, self-pitying swing section.  Replacements 2, Beatles 1

4. "I Me Mine" vs. "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" - Self-important, furrow-browed seriousness vs. a goofball throwaway.  The Harrison song may be technically stronger from a melodic and hooky POV, but it sure as hell ain't half as fun.  Besides, "Hey nurse, what are you doing?  Later. after the operation?"  Replacements wipe snot on the roof with Beatles, 3-1.  (And hey, just noticed - both of these are concept albums about hanging out on the roof!)

5. "Dig It/Let It Be" vs. "Androgynous" - There's no doubt that both lyrics are sincere and heartfelt, and Harrison's buzzy solo in the midst of this sepulchral edifice to Catholic reverie almost tips the scales in favor of McCartney.  But something meets boy meets something girl just cuts deeper.  Usually with most songwriters it doesn't, but Westerberg is the heart-on-his-flannel poet of ragingly insecure romantic angst (more on that later - much, much more on that later), and identify is too weak of a word.  Replacements 4, Beatles 1

6. "Maggie May" vs. "Black Diamond" - A brief snippet of a traditional Liverpool folk ballad about a thieving prostitute, and a fully-fleshed out traditional NYC rocker about hanging out on the streets as a homeless teen, or whatever.  Look, let's get this straight - KISS weren't a real band, they were a marketing ploy that gussied up in the costumery of a rock band in order to swipe $$$ and screw 4,000 groupies (with photographic evidence), not necessarily in that order.  That the Replacements somehow make a stupid KISS kover actually enjoyable is to their credit, even if it is the weakest cut on side one.  Replacements 5, Beatles 1.

And now let's flip the vinyl over to side two.

1. "I've Got a Feeling" vs. "Unsatisfied" -  Paul W. sounds like he's ripping his lungs out in anguish; this isn't a song that was written, it was carved out of stone, or more accurately, sliced out of Westerberg's very flesh.  John and Paul are throwing it away again.  Everybody had a hard year, everybody knows who wins this round. 6-1

2. "One After 909" vs. "Seen Your Video" - Neither composition is particularly strong, the Replacements throwing it away uninterestingly on this half-instrumental, while the Beatles tune is just some soggy rockabilly readymade leftover from the Quarrymen days.  Move over once, move twice, it's the Replacements because at least the quasi-surf twanging shows some mild originality as an actual piece of music.  7-1

3. "The Long and Winding Road" vs. "Gary's Got a Boner" - Eh, this is one of the most lopsided matches in this contest, and for once in the Fabs' favor.  You know it's the worst piece of dreck on Let It Be (either album) glancing at the credits - Ted Nugent rip-off?  As much as I find Spector's overproduction gruesome, if you dig beneath the lush syrup you'll find one of McCartney's more affecting and melodic tunes.  Replacements 7, Beatles 2

4. "For You Blue" vs. "Sixteen Blue" - Coincidental titles!  Now it's Harrison's turn to throw it away as he tosses his band a ragbone of a generic blues exercise, ridiculously underperforming in the originality department, and with his weak, nasal white English boy tenor, one of the least convincing essays on Elmore James committed by any British rock group of his era.  To be fair to George, he did have lots of much better songs in him - he was just saving them all up for All Things Must Pass.

Oh, and for "Sixteen Blue" - ever been a teenage virgin?  Ever cried yourself to sleep because you were lonely and had no clue how to get a girlfriend or even talk to girls you liked without shaking inside, and pretending to your parents that you actually have friends and a social life but when they drop you off downtown you just wander the streets feeling sorry for yourself and hating your face, looks, clothes, body because you look awkward and funny but you're not laughing, you're filled to the brim with self-doubt and loathing and angst and misery.

No?  Then fuck you.


5. "Get Back" vs. "Answering Machine" - Even if McCartney had kept the original lyrics spoofing racist paranoia about Pakistani immigrants, the Beatles still couldn't have won.  It's a nice little tune but nothing special.  "Answering Machine" on the other hand - sometimes I hate modern technology.  People communicate by email and Facebook and Twitter and voicemail and texting and whatever the latest social media apps/networks are, rather than talk to each other face to face, and while these modern technologies are convenient, you'd be a fool to deny that some vital human element is lost.  It's alienating.  The modern world alienates human relationships.  Westerberg is trying to tell some person that he cares deeply about that he's lonely and misses her but he's OK, but even though his courage is at his peak, he can't bring himself to leave that message on her goddamn answering machine.  All he needs at that vulnerable moment is to hear another person's voice, to make some sort of real human connection, but he gets the toneless robocall of the operator.  You finally have the nerve to call up somebody and she doesn't pick up - maybe she's busy or out at the moment - and you really should leave a message to say that you called, but it's awkward, and if you do that there's no guarantee she'll call back, so you resolve to call back later, but not too soon because you might come across as desperate (which you are) and anyway.....  Maybe Westerberg is overthinking it all and is feeling neurotically insecure when there's actually no good reason to be.  Maybe he should just let it be.

Final score 9-2.  Poor Beatles.  But like I said, it was one of their weakest albums, with John and George both saving all their best songs for their solo albums, leaving only Paul to put out his best efforts while he was still at the top of his game.  And Westerberg was at the top of his A-game in the mid-'80s, so the results could hardly be unexpected.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Warren Zevon - Excitable Boy

Excitable Boy (1978) ***1/2

I stumbled across a dusty Tibetan ouija board in a Chinese knick-knack shop in the alley behind my apartment and to break it in, I have contacted the spirit of Warren Zevon himself for this review.

Creative Noise:  Hiya, Mr. Zevon.  Do you mind if I call you Warren?

Warren Zevon:  Call me Mr. Bad Example.

CN:  Fine.  How's the air up there?

WZ:  Up there?  Why would you assume I went up there?  No, where I am it's hot, damn hot, dusty, and I can't even find a decent bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin.  The only liquor on tap is this 3.2% crap.  Piss water that has the audacity to label itself beer.  I've knocked back a dozen in two hours tonight and all I feel is the urge to piss all over the walls.  Boring as hell burg, too.  My only consolation is that I'm told that Merle Haggard and Lemmy might be arriving here anytime soon, so at least I might have a couple of drinking buddies.

CN:  You tell me you've been sent to an eternity in Oklahoma for your sins?  I am so sorry, man.  It ain't Denver, but there are things to do in Tulsa when you're dead.

WZ:  Tulsa?  I could only wish.  No, they sent me straight to Muskogee.  I transform into a headless werewolf at dusk and howl my one big hit to put the scare into Okies.

CN: I've observed that quite a few followups to great debut albums suffer from slightly inferior copycat syndrome - the Byrds, the Pretenders, et. al.  Your debut and Excitable Boy seem to have certain twins in common - "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" takes up the place of "Mohammed's Radio" as the lyrically slight, upbeat most danceable tune, while "Accidentally Like a Martyr" is a somewhat superior take on "Hasten Down the Wind".  And it still sucks.  This England Dan & John Ford Coley soft-rock tripe is beneath you.

WZ:  I agree.  That is only one of the many, many sins for which I am paying penance.

CN: "Nighttime in the Switching Yard" is even worse.  What is a near-sighted Jewish kid from the Midwest doing fooling around with funk?  "Join Me in L.A." was such a bad idea you had to do it twice?

WZ: I'm not entirely responsible.  If you look at the credits, it was co-written by the entire studio band.  It seemed like a groovy jam at the time.  And it was.  It just didn't make the transition to record very well.

CN:  Let me focus on the positives before I start pissing you off too much.  I've heard you can have problems with your temper when you've been drinking-

WZ:  3.2% beers!  You think I'm a lightweight?

CN:  I would never imply that.  Your feats of alcoholism were legendary.  My favorite line in "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" is "he found him in Mombasa in a bar room drinking gin".  I like songs that tell interesting stories, beyond the usual boy-meets-girl stuff.  "Veracruz", for the same reasons - it's the only song about Woodrow Wilson's invasion during the Mexican Revolution that I'm aware of.

WZ:  I'm proud of that one.  I should've brushed up on my Spanish for some of those lines, but I was rusty so I had Jorge sing'em.  "Roland" is one of my signature tunes, but like "Werewolves" it became something of an albatross over the years.  You know how people demand that one song of yours over and over and ignore all your other stuff....

CN:.....yeah, yeah, that's why I've danced around mentioning that one.  Scoring Fleetwood Mac's rhythm section probably had a lot to do with it being such a big hit, don't you think?  The track swings.

WZ:  I spent the rest of my life being known for one goddamn novelty song.  Everywhere I went people would howl "a-woo!" at me.  Drove me to drink.

CN: I didn't think you needed any help.  And it's a great novelty tune!  I bet you got sick of "Lawyers, Guns, and Money", too.

WZ:  That one I could tolerate.  It has "shit" in the chorus, so it wasn't so overplayed.

CN:  I'm looking at the credits right now.  Jackson Browne co-wrote "Tenderness on the Block"?  No wonder it's so boring and forgettable.

WZ:  Hey now, Jackson's a nice guy.

CN:  A boring and forgettable nice guy, if his music is anything to go by.  And I hear he's not so nice to his wives.

WZ:  Neither was I.  Another reason I'm stuck haunting Dust Bowl, OK instead of swapping brandies with Stravinsky up there.

CN:  Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, he taught you piano when you were a kid, didn't he?

WZ:  Yup.

CN: What do you think he'd make of this bright, gifted kid he'd taught classical piano pieces to, growing up to write murder-rape fantasies set to basic bar room boogie?  I'm sure there are tears in heaven.

WZ:  First of all, I'm not even sure if Stravinsky is in heaven, and second of all, where do you get off mocking one of my most clever, wittiest songs?  I named the record after it!

CN:  Look, Warren, like a lot of people, you're not nearly as clever or witty as you think you are.  Plus, while it's catchy, it is pretty basic, and overall it comes across as a little....uh....sorry, man, but just kind of stupid, you know?

WZ:  If I didn't have to start stalking the town in the next hour or so, I'd come all the way over there to wherever the hell you are and slit your throat, you condescending rock critic piece of shit.  I work hard for months writing songs and putting together my best effort at an album, and people like you who haven't ever created anything themselves, you people come and shit all over my art.

CN:  Calm down, excitable boy.  Where did that come from?!

WZ:  I snuck an emergency stash of whiskey in my boots, just for desperate situations.

CN:  Maybe let's wrap this up then.  In conclusion, like all of your albums, Excitable Boy is an uneven mix of some very good songs and some not so very good songs-

WZ: Listen you son of bitch, a knife to the throat is too quick.  I'm going to tie you to a tree in the woods and rape your girlfriend while all the while making you watch, and then I'm going to slice you with a couple dozen cuts so you can die a slow, painful death from bleeding from your wounds.  Maybe some wild animals will smell your blood and devour your flesh - if you're lucky.

CN:  Jeezus.  You stole that from Rashomon.  Even your murder-rape fantasies are derivative.

WZ: Derivative?  Derivative?  DERIVATIVE?  Once you've had a major international hit and a thirty year career in music-

Connection disrupted

I tried calling Warren back a few days later, when I figured he'd sobered up, but somehow the lines got crossed, and the ouija board hooked me into GG Allin's answering machine instead.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Warren Zevon - s/t

And when California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

Warren Zevon (1976) ****

Musically speaking, an album that sounds like Jackson Browne turned to the Dark Side was nothing either revolutionary or of any special note to emerge from Southern Cali in 1976; the lyrics are obviously the main attraction here - it's, well, a singer-songwriter album, and therefore the difference between lacerating memorability and forgettable accomplished mediocrity comes down, as it so often does in pop music, to attitude.  Weaving self-consciously cynical tales of the sleazier side of '70s L.A., Zevon comes across as the simpatico West Coast stepbrother of Steely Dan, minus the jazz pretensions.  Backed up by a slickly professional set of top-notch L.A. session men and a decade's experience in the biz (this is actually his second album, but for all intents and purposes his debut - the less said about his extremely premature 1969 LP, Wanted Dead or Alive, the better), the musical backing may situate his songs snugly between Bob Seger and the Eagles, but the songs themselves are a considerable notch above those MOR classic rockers in terms of brains, soul, wit, and elan.  In other words, this review is going to focus mostly on the lyrics rather than bother much with the adequate musical qualities, as it should.

Besides, the songs - when they're on - are simply so damn good.  Which is a slight problem - if the entire LP lived up to the likes of the down and out heroin ballad "Carmelita" (allegedly a Springsteen parody) I might rate this as highly as, say, John Prine's debut.  As is, unfortunately, Zevon seems to have resided in Laurel Canyon a mite too long, and some bad habits of his Asylum record labelmates seem to have rubbed off on him.  I'm speaking chiefly of the album's first single and (thankfully unsuccessful) attempt at a soft rock hit, the Linda Rondstadt-covered "Hasten Down the Wind".  I'm not even going to try to resist the juvenile pun obviously, painfully sitting there.  Take ten seconds to figure it out if you haven't sniggered already.  In fact, most of the rest of side one troddles on ground almost as shaky as Zevon's brown baritone itself.  While the album gets off to a fine, if deceptively normal, non-perverse start with a simple piano boogie about the cowboy outlaws "Frank and Jesse James" - which could almost fool the unsuspecting listener that they're in for an Eagles album - the next two songs are bog-ordinary country-rock songs of no particular memorability or merit in either lyrics, performance, or presentation.  Hey, maybe this is an Eagles album after all!  And then we get to "Hasten Down the Wind".  Oh brother, this guy looks like he's starting to suck.  But then in a drastic turnabout we get the LP's first genuine rocker, the headpounding "Poor Pitiful Me" which openly mocks and derides the self-pitying tendencies of the singer-songwriter genre, narrated by a completely unsympathetic, sleazeball womanizer who boasts of how rough it is having all these So Cal women throwing themselves at his feet to be abused by him.  That same character seems to turn up in the next song as well, "The French Inhaler" (a pun on....oh, if you don't get the sexual reference, nevermind), though through a somewhat more sympathetic lens (if not exactly trustworthy, likeable, or non-scuzzy).  Musically it could be demented Billy Joel, as the narrator sits at a Hollywood bar full of phonies that he pretends to be friends with because - well, hell, I guess a guy has to have some friends - with money that he may or may not have acquired pimping out a failed aspiring Hollywood actress.  Or maybe he's just talking about the type of beautiful, lonesome, messed-up gal that every seasoned bar veteran knows so well.  Either way, the genuine Warren Zevon finally emerges for the first time on those two songs, and thankfully now that he's got his sea legs, that guy hangs around for the rest of this little long-player.

Maybe my ears are glossing over some key verses, but lyrically I find nothing noteworthy about the tune that kicks off side two, "Mohammed's Radio" - and for once that doesn't matter, as it's a fine slice of anthemic neo-Van Morrison-ism.  "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" gives the finger to those who would rather keep it cool and Zen, providing this gin-soaked, unrepentantly hell-raising asshole (Zevon, not me) a lifelong personal anthem.  It's "Carmelita", the Mexi-Cali flavored heroin ballad that may be the album's strongest highlight, however, as Zevon sings of methadone clinics, welfare checks that get cut off, selling typewriters to pawn shops, and living on the outskirts of town with a Mexican squeeze, all with a discernible twinkle in his eye - as if it's all actually a parody of the sad-sack, beautiful-loser style of singer-songwriter balladry.  Or he could be singing heartfelt sentiments with a bemused attempt at grim levity - who knows?  I will pause to regretfully note the lone bummer on side two, "Join Me in L.A.", slimy moron-funk that's as disgusting and gross as '80s Don Henley (and sounds suspiciously like it), before arriving at the final track, "Desperados Under the Eaves".  Now I know this is outright parody, from the title alone, and it's terrific parody - he nails with unerring, mocking accuracy the macho cliches of cocaine outlaw-blues of '70s rock, yet manages to keep the tune oddly emotionally moving, as the narrator holes up in a shoddy L.A. hotel awaiting the eventual California earthquake.  A fitting end to an album that both exemplifies and undercuts the singer-songwriter movement of the Me Decade.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead

The Queen Is Dead (1986) ***1/2

Call me old-fashioned (and if you listen to the Smiths, you definitely have at least a few neo-Edwardian Luddite tendencies, will it or nay) but I still like to think of albums in terms of sides.  This makes it simpler to categorize the tracks on this release, as on my 1990s era cassette the four truly great tracks are bookended at the start/end of Sides One and Two, respectively.  In between are sandwiched pleasing trifles of throwaways and unpleasing plodders of ponderousity.  OK, track 2 side 2, "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" amounts to more than a throwaway - it's excellent, but ineffably falls just a bit a short of classic.  Perhaps it's Stephen Street's soupy psuedo-string backdrop behind the perfectly adequate-by-itself guitar jangle.  A sparer arrangement would've made more sense than the superfluous overproduction, but - this was the '80s.  There's a reason why I've always preferred the live-in-the-studio with minimal overdubs sound of their BBC sessions to any of their proper studio recordings.

Actually, now that I re-listen, it's most side one that actively annoys me.  The second half of the disc turns out to be fairly consistent on closer inspection -- "Vicar in a Tutu" is a goofball throwaway, but it least it skips fruitily along its merry way in barely over two minutes, so it doesn't drag (pun intended groan).  "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" - again - suffers from the psuedo-orchestrations of Street overproduction (gosh darn it, if I wanted to hear Morrissey warbling over lush strings, I'd buy one of his solo albums.  I listen to Smiths albums to hear the band, man.), but hey, it's not a bad tune melodically speaking and has a few choice lyrical moments.

At this moment a prose psychoanalyst would note that I overuse the conjunction "but" and have the tendency to hedge my bets with ambiguous modifiers.  One can see that Burks often falls into the habit of pointing out flaws for every good point, and vice versa, rarely fully expressing complete approval or disdain.  This indicates either a waffling, indecisive personality type, or perhaps simply a dedicatedly observant type who can analyze objects from different points of view, namely either the half-full or half-empty perspective.  This is a good quality in a reviewer, particularly when the object of art under scrutiny is neither a triumph nor a failure, but somewhere in the middle realm of flawed goodness, as are most albums.  (Actually, that isn't true at all - 95% of everything is unadulterated crap.)  Does the mind rule the body or the body rule the mind?  I dunno.

Back to the old house, dear old blighty.  The title track rushes along mid-tempo in an intimate epic (oh you clever contradictory adjectives), the mood a modern-day update on "That's Entertainment" (only six years after the Jam, an eternity in UK Pop), bemoaning the dreary state of rainy-grey Blighty while not-so-secretly getting a perverse kick out of miserable English weather and miserable English people.  'Tis the great British tradition to whine about the Motherland.  The bookend that closes side one, "Cemetery Gates" does that trad clever-pop trick to even better effect, marrying a sunny shimmer of Marr-guitars with melancholy Morrissey-isms concerning Wilde, Keats, Yeats, and graveyard gates.  Do I dare eat a peach?  Do I dare disturb the universe?  Do I dare listen to the rest of side one again?  Yes, "Frankly Mr. Shankly" bounces along quite jauntily with some of the Kinks-iest moves these boys have ever homaged at us (I said Kinksy, not kinky, silly toff), both musically and character-assassination-of -the-bourgeois wise, but - it amounts to a non-earth-shattering throwaway.  And then there are the LP's twin nadirs, back to back smack in the middle of side one, two gruesomely slow and morbid Morrissey-ballads that perilously threaten to drag the entire record down with them.  I know that fanboys eat virginity blues "Never Had No One Never" and funeral porn "I Know It's Over" up like lithium tablets because they, like, speak to my sensitive goth wallflower existence sob.  Me?  I want to skip to the good stuff, not wallow in adolescent angst.  I get enough of that in my daily life as a grown man pushing middle age, thank you.

Well, let's flip this vinyl over and get to some of those goodies, chiefly the album's fiercest rocker, the tightly crackling "Bigmouth Strikes Again" - hey, now here's an anthem that truly speaks to me, sob.  And skipping along to the lone song I have not yet mentioned, the album closes on a high point, "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" which dreamily floats along as if it's constantly on the verge of fading in and out.  And then it does fade out, leaving Antony and Cleopatra and perhaps the Smiths' finest long-player behind.  There is this is misguided notion that:

a) great bands must leave behind great albums
b) the Smiths were a great band
c) therefore, The Queen Is Dead is a great album

Spot the flaw in the logic.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Peggy Russell/Merle Haggard - Sing Me Back Home

You won't see too many classic country (or blues) record reviews on this site, not because I'm a non-fan, but due to the fact (IMAO) that it's primarily a song, not album, medium. Even the best of your classic country-western LPs (and I have heard every Hag LP he cut from his '60s/'70s prime) rolled off the Nashville/Bakersfield assembly line full of, if not quite "filler", certainly a good chunk of formulaic ready-mades.  And I'm not fool enough to go down every highway exploring all 50+ of Merle's regular-issue albums that he's released in his lifetime.  That all said, Haggard stands as not just a giant in the realm of country music, but one of the finest songwriters (and singers) in 20th century American music, period, with a back catalogue as rich and rewarding as Dylan or Cash or, frankly, anyone's.  His persona was darker and more threatening than Cash's (Johnny only sang about life in prison; Merle lived it for several years) yet somehow more empathetic and even gentle.  He's also the anti-Dylan in certain ways.  I'm speaking not merely of his right-wing, anti-hippie political sentiments (which were so cartoonish at points that I'm still not sure how much of a joke "Okie From Muskogee" actually is - if at all), but the nature of his songwriting.  There is nothing obscure about the messages or words of any of Haggard's lyrics, and rarely does he engage in much of the clever, punny wordplay so common in factory-line Nashville country.  There is little to no doubt of the sincerity behind the sentiments of Haggard's best songs; he may wear his heart on his sleeve, but his persona is so lived-in and world-experienced that his innate tough/rough edges keep mawkish sentimentality at bay.  (Well, most of the time.  See my point about country LP filler.).  If songs like "Hungry Eyes" or "Sing Me Back Home" or "Sidewalks of Chicago" leave you completely dry-eyed - well, one wonders how it must feel to have no functioning heart.  Lastly, unlike a great many of the members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, songs about love and relationships aren't necessarily his prime forte.  It's not as if he doesn't have plenty of those - "I Can't Be Myself", for instance, is the only example I I am aware of, of a song concerning religious differences causing marital friction.  A bit odd if you think about it, as that does sometimes happen to be an issue between interfaith (or even shared faith) couples.  Which brings me back to my main point - when I cherry-pick his most memorable songs, I think of songs about homelessness (the aforementioned "Chicago"), hobos ("I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am"), drinking (OK, this is country music), unemployment ("If We Make It Through December"), the Great Depression ("Hungry Eyes"), the Great Recession of the 1970s ("A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today"), rabid right-wing jingoism ("The Fightin' Side of Me"), jail and the tribulations of an ex-con ("Branded Man" and others far too numerous to mention).

It's that last bit of subject matter that informs a great deal of the material in this book, in which Merle (who really did turn 21 in prison, albeit certainly not doing life without parole) seems to have lived more wild hellraising by the time he reached legal drinking age than most people experience in their entire lifetimes.  Hell, he committed more crimes by the age of 14 than I've committed by the age of -- well, never you mind my age.  The story begins with a scene of Merle holding his aching head in solitary confinement, hungover after a foolish experiment moonshining pruno in the joint, and the ride only spins it wheels wilder from there.  I'm not sure just how much of his life story he's laying out - maybe he's skipping over some of his truly nasty episodes - but what he does decide to share feels as honest and straightforward as his songs:  he's just too blunt and deceptively artless to not come across as implicitly trustworthy. (Unlike his polar opposite, Zimmerman the anti-Hag.)  Almost to a fault:  several of the episodes in his life as a dumb, mean, angry redneck who certainly did deserve to get thrown in a cage where he belonged, if only temporarily (sorry, Merle, if you're going to tell it like it is, so will I) are downright cringe-inducing.  One in particular should illustrate the point adequately:  Haggard describes waylaying a retarded kid he knew from around town, viciously beating and robbing him.  In Hag's defense, he claims that it was probably the worst thing he's ever done and that he still feels guilty about it after all these years, but still - yeah, maybe a couple of years in the joint weren't such a bad idea to cool off the young Merle.  Recounting all the wild times that the Hag recalls from his misspent youth (misspent?  He did mine a lot of writing material from it.) would take up too much space for this review, so let me just conclude that the yarns he spins are rollicking and rarely less than riveting.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that this was one of the most enthralling first-person music bios I've ever read - it reads like a gripping coming-of-age novel.

For music fans, the only true disappointment may be how little Haggard actually touches upon music and music-making.  This may or may not be all for the better, as his non-musical career as a petty criminal is, indeed, so much more fascinating.  The book does take a noticeable drop in interest when he abandons crime to focus on his music career.  And the passages where he goes into detail about his relationships with women - well, there is the trademark blunt, almost clumsy Okie honesty of Hag.  He unapologetically and unsentimentally describes the scene in which, coming home to his wife after a tour that lasted a mite longer than nine months, and presented with a newborn - he turns his head, hugs his other children, but struggles for years to accept into his family a child that he knows for damn sure isn't his.  He is equally - disarmingly so, especially by modern standards (this book was published in 1981) - frank about the period in the '70s when he was so enamored of Dolly Parton that he stalked her to the point of frightening her.  Which does set up the backdrop for one of the funnier episodes in the autobiography, in which a stoned Haggard calls up Dolly at 2 in the morning and attempts to play a song he'd been sitting up all night writing for her, over the phone.  She hangs up.  (Did you expect any other response?)  "A missed connection," Merle philosophically muses upon him and Parton's non-relationship.  As a writer, sometimes I wish I had the courage to write as brutally honestly as Haggard about some of the relationships I've had in the past and failed at or been burned on, but - nah.  Not just that spilling your heart out can be embarrassing after you've purged what you needed to say to somebody, but also that there's always more than one person in a relationship, and my perspective is - well, my perspective, only half the story (or sometimes even less), so it really wouldn't seem fair to monopolize the retelling of emotions and events.  Well, Merle certainly spills it all from his perspective, and it may even reasonably approximate the truth, which is the best you can expect out of a ghost-written autobiography.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rubber Soul vs. Blonde on Blonde


By all rights, the matchup should be between Rubber Soul and Highway 61 Revisited, and not simply because they were released in the same year (Blonde on Blonde was released a year later, in 1966).  If Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan's first all-out electric, rock'n'roll LP (Bringing It All Back Home was only half-electric, on the first side), then Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album to demonstrate the clear influence of Dylan (and the Byrds).  But the numbers simply didn't add up - 11 songs vs. 14 songs.  So BoB will have to do: 14 songs here from their generation's most significant folk singer to match up with the 14 on the Beatles' greatest folk-rock LP.  You may object that the pieces still don't quite fit, as Dylan's set consists mostly of lengthy tracks (one exceeding 11 minutes) to pad out what was one of rock's first double (that's 4 sides of vinyl, kids) LPs, while the Beatles' LP is filled with short, snappy 3 minute pop ditties.  Well, I wanted some sort of showdown between Bob and the Fabs at some point, and this was the best compromise I could do.  This should be interesting, at the very least.

P.S. I'm using the original U.K. track listing for the Beatles LP, not the shuffle-butchered U.S. track order.

1. "Drive My Car" vs. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" - "Everybody must get stoned!" vs. "beep beep beep!"  Each album leads with its stupidest and most childish song, and while my attitude towards the Dylan tune has softened over the years (due in great part to my ears' extended hiatus from Classic Rock Radio, where for obvious fratboy reasons this was the sole Dylan song to be ground into the dirt via overplay), I still don't enjoy it very much.  Forced fun never works as well as musicians assume it will when the listener is not drunk, and in the light of sobriety, it's just annoying.  But the Beatles tune isn't even fun as a drunken singalong.  It's Paul's idea of '50s rock'n'roll for 4th graders.  Plus, the 'boozy-woozy dirty carnival' sound of "Rainy Day" is rather unique.  So score 1 point for Bob, even if I truly like neither.

2.  "Norwegian Wood" vs. "Pledging My Time" - Did I hallucinate this or don't CD editions start off with "Norwegian Wood"?  I must have mis-remembered.  Anyway, this is no contest by a Scandinavian mile - John's bittersweet, deceptively offhand tale of a failed one-night stand burns down Bob's homage to John Lee Hooker-style Chicago blues.  There are ten thousand bands writing and playing songs like "Pledging My Time" as we speak.  Not many writing Lennon-ish sitar-folk tunes, and it ain't for lack of trying.  Score is now tied.

3.  "You Won't See Me" vs. "Visions of Johanna" - The ghosts of throwaway pop ditties howl in her face like infinity on trial, and if you have no idea what that means, neither do I, or most likely Bob himself.  I knew in advance without looking at the track listing that any Beatles song wouldn't stand a chance against "Johanna", my personal favorite of Dylan's 7+ minute epics (and he's had, oh - a few).  Fine as Paul's tune is, it's like pitting a Seinfeld episode up against The Seven Samurai.  Dylan 2, Beatles 1.

4.  "Nowhere Man" vs. "One of Must Know (Sooner or Later)" - Oh dear, this is the first serious dilemma of this contest.  I'm attracted to both equally for different reasons and find myself humming the choruses to each from time to time -- the lyrical subject matter of both have seemed to speak to my life at different times for different (if not entirely unrelated) reasons.  So which should I choose, the blonde or the moptop?  (Weren't the Beatles all brunettes?)  On the other hand, I adore the Byrds, and this is as close as the Beatles ever got to a straight-up homage to McGuinn & Co., so now the score is tied again.

5.  "Think For Yourself" vs. "I Want You" - In Beatles evolutionary terms, this is the finest George song yet.  But he'd improve considerably in short time.  With its almost Appalachian swirl of Nashville fiddles, the Dylan tune is the most conventionally 'musical' and perhaps interesting on BoB, and precipitates the sound of Desire a decade ahead of schedule.  So now Bob takes the lead again, 3 - 2.

6. "The Word" vs. "Stuck in Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" - Sorry, but lyrics do matter, and those have always been the Fabs' Achilles heel.  Catchy as it is in ways that Bob couldn't even begin to attempt, the sentiments are trite hippie rubbish.  Bob's down'n'out ruminations on dead grandfathers, French girls palling around with Shakespeare, railroad men smoking eyelids and drinking blood like wine, bad drinking experiences brought on by mixing Texas medicine and railroad gin, seductive burlesque dancers who know what you need but give you what you want -- this one's easy-pleasy.  Dylan 4, Beatles 2.

7.  "Michelle" vs. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" - Another pair of songs that do even less for me than the opening cuts of their respective LPs.  One's just another unimaginative Chicago blues foot-stomper, and the Paul tune sung partially in French is goofball MOR rubbish.  So, yeah, give me an authentic take on Chicago blues over fake Jacques Brel any day.  I'm American that way.  Besides, the line about how the hat balances as well as a wine bottle on a mattress is genuinely funny.  Dylan 5, Beatles 2.

8.  "What Goes On" vs. "Just Like a Woman" - Well, it's a Ringo sung tune, and John/Paul rarely tossed him the first-rate.  But it's alright, ma, he's only talk-singing in a flat monotone because that's the best he can do without a little help from his friends.  As for the Dylan song (he's already won again, 6-2, no surprise there), the lyrics are in general a bit below his usual standards, even if melodically and hookily the tune is a bit above Bob's usual standards.  "She fakes just like a woman" could almost be a line of dialogue from a porno - dunno, always sounded a bit icky to my ears.  Not too deep or subtle of a chorus, but the verses in general make up for the overall air of callowness.

9. "Girl" vs. "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" - Ah, misogyny.  Bob's kissoff to Joan Baez or whoever he'd broken up with in the past (if any specific woman at all) advances the sleazy carnival sound of "Rainy Day Women" with a considerably darker-hued tune in terms of both atmosphere and lyrical attitude.  Interesting musically speaking, but not all that memorable of a song - the chorus isn't particularly strong.  Lennon's bitter (not particularly sweet, just bitter) folk-pop sigh of exasperation and exhalation is one of the strongest on Soul.  And the 'drag on a cigarette' vocal hook is pleasantly novel.  Dylan 6, Beatles 3.

10. "I'm Looking Through You" vs. "Temporary Like Achilles" - One of Paul's stronger tunes on this particular Beatles LP, its strummy bounce makes for a snotty kiss-off anti-love-note almost as worthy of anything Dylan ever wrote (or Lennon, for that matter).  "....Achilles" is, well - sigh, just another generic electric blues number, except only weaker this time: a sloth-y stroll-paced slow blues that lacks energy, hooks, focus.  Easily the worst song on Bob's double LP.  Dylan 6, Beatles 4.

11.  "In My Life" vs. "Absolutely Sweet Marie" - The Dylan track picks up some of the energy dissipated by "Achilles" and sets matters aright again, and "to live outside the law, you must be honest" is one of Zimmy's most quotable lines.  "In My Life", on the other hand, is the one Beatles song that you'd like played at your funeral.  And I bet you didn't realize that until I just mentioned it now.  Dylan 6, Beatles 5.

12. "Wait" vs. "4th Time Around" - Despite the line "gallantly I handed her my last piece of gum", this is minor Dylan -- not quite a throwaway, and the Spanish guitar pleasantly flows along with gallant troubadour flamenco flair, but after the tune ends, all that is solid melts into air.  The Beatles tune itself is such a throwaway that I can't even tell quite for sure if it's a John or Paul written song (probably Paul's), but the jagged proto-Revolver guitar hook and tension-build dynamic in the chorus make it much more memorable.  6-6 - it's a tie again.

13. "If I Needed Someone" vs. "Obviously 5 Believers" - I don't mind fast rockabilly, but like the Chicago blues, it does have the tendency towards the perilously generic as a genre, and bands usually cut numbers like this when they want to rock out but are bereft of ideas.  The Harrison tune is no Lennon/McCartney but the kid's improving all the time.  Beatles take the lead for the first time, 7-6.

14. "Run For Your Life" vs. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" - Once again, I knew without even glancing at the track listing that this was a foregone conclusion.  As much wholesome fun as a bit of homicidal Elvis-inspired misogyny may be if you're in the mood for that sort of thing, Lennon himself said that he didn't much care for the tune.  "Sara Lownds" (it doesn't even work as an anagram, Bob!) is - well, what exactly is the precise term for anti-misogynistic?  And no, "love song" just won't do, and neither will "putting her on a pedestal" - those cliches don't quite do justice to this eleven and a half minute ode to joy, a religious hymn to the sensation of falling in love in your mid-20s with the (first) woman you intend to marry.  It drones on and on, hypnotic if you're in the mood (or in a similarly smitten emotional situation as Bob was), and just droney and repetitive if you ain't.  An easy knockout for Dylan.  7-7

Well, that was exhausting.  Took me an entire listen of Blonde on Blonde to type the whole thing (like most normal people, I have all of the Beatles songs memorized by heart, so no need to replay Rubber Soul for research purposes).  A tie seems fair enough, and not particularly surprising.  As an overall album experience, however - well, it's still a tie, on reflection.  The Beatles work with a broader and more varied musical palette, with Dylan hemmed in by technical limitations (in both musicianship and songwriting) to 12-bar blues, generic '50s rock'n'roll, and traditional folk music forms.  Yet within those narrow (relative to the Beatles' eclecticism) parameters, Zimmerman creates his own, unique universe.  And Dylan cuts deeper, both lyrically and emotionally,  This is adult music for adults, not adolescent kiddy stuff.  The Beatles could, as I said, sometimes be a bit shallow.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Smiths - Meat Is Murder

Meat is Murder (1985) **1/2

The temptation to violate Godwin's Law and take the cheap "Hitler was a vegetarian" shot grows strong within this one.  (It's an urban myth, anyway.)  That trite volley fired, I should say that it's actually an improvement over the debut in terms of sound (new producer Stephen Street, who would prove to be their George Martin for the rest of their short career, actually knows what he's doing), and isn't that bad of a listen.  The problem lies within the songwriting - it's far too threadbare.  I count two classics for the M & M canon "I Want the One I Can't Have" showcases a surgingly power-pop tune with strikingly conventional chorus sentiments that verge on the almost banal, but several of the verses slap the tune onto shore ("On the day that your mentality decides to try and catch up with your biology").  The second we have already met before - "How Soon Is Now?"  And as I already have that latter on Hatful, should I as a consumer purchase this propaganda broadsheet for one great song?  Oh, "The Headmaster Ritual" starts the album energetically and atmospherically enough, with M's lyrical recounting of mean'ol schoolteachers subjecting schoolchildren to the same stale jokes and fashion sense of 1902, and the other M's jangly arpeggios, giving the fillip an epic feel.  A fine way to start off the record, if more epic atmosphere than possessing much in terms of actual hooks.  I also might grudgingly concede that "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" should sit on comfortably on the bookshelf of Mopey Morrissey Ballads - OK, it's fine for what it is and probably a "classic", it's just that I've never been a huge fan of Morrissey in draggy, whiny balladry mode.  And there's not much of a hook there, either, aside from the "I've seen this happen in other people's lives" vocal melody in the chorus.  Which cuts to the heart of the matter:  these tunes are simply too stiff and hookless.  Not tuneless, or lacking in lyrical wit, or lush yet crisp atmospherics, or sharp band dynamics - but hooks?  Several of these tracks are little more than rockabilly readymades that suggest a band simply circling round the motions. So I lay blame entirely on Marr - his well of riffs had apparently encountered a dry spell for a brief period.

Or maybe not entirely.  The final two tracks push my relative indifference to most of this album into the realm of active dislike.  "Barbarism Begins At Home" isn't that terribly offensive - in fact, not offensive at all - but it is the weakest cut yet, as these Mancunians unwisely venture into funk.  Doesn't work, doesn't work at all, despite some decent bass work.  The title track that closes the album, though - hell yeah I'm offended.  And it's not primarily because of the PETA political stance, overwrought and absurd as it is.  It's the fact that it drags on for over 6 minutes, droning with little of musical merit to engage the listener, while Morrissey insistently howls, "It is murder!  It is murder!"  Have a bacon sarnie, Moz.  Appropriately enough, the LP ends with the mooing of cattle as a crowd cheers in a slaughterhouse.

I'm assuming that Moz's commitment to Jainism is about as sincere and consistent as his commitment to celibacy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Smiths - Hatful of Hollow

Hatful of Hollow (1984) *****

A compilation of alternate-version BBC recordings from their debut LP, with a pair of A/B-sides tossed in the jambalaya (or mince pie, or whatever is the pasty limey equivalent) is, as a general rule of thumb, not the best place to start with most bands, much less their definitive statement and the one place to go if you need your fix of mope and mockery.  But Morrissey & Marr have always been an eccentric odd couple, and it's the brave combo of a fey acolyte of Oscar Wilde fronting a rock-steady band of Manchester-muck blokes that (partially, only partially) makes the Smiths so special.  All but a handful of the tracks from the debut are present here in slightly different but somehow infinitely superior form (the production!  the production!), slightly rawer and thinner and more vital.  Less stiff and prematurely ossified, too.  And, as I noted in my previous review, none of the missing five songs are any great shakes, so the debut is now made superfluously redundant and unequivocally unnecessary.  The title may be slang for a batch of emptiness (which the band may have felt a quickie rip-off of radio sessions was - fair warning to fans clever enough to grok the pun, during those o-heady days of Morrisseymania in dear Old Blightey), but never you mind.  This is the only Smiths longplayer I can safely slip on and enjoy from start to finish - the other ones I just cherry pick the selected tunes I actually like and ignore the rest.

I know, you say it's gruesome that someone so handsome should care, so I shall attend to the material not already presented a few months earlier on the debut.  "William, It Was Really Nothing" sprightly springs us into this silver platter with a typical Marr jingle-shimmer, his high-end-note guitar bouncily slicing like slivers of sweet sunlight through the blinds, while Morrissey spins a tale of hum-drum towns where fat girls offer hands in marriage and are even so presumptuous as to purchase the ring.  Of its pair of B-sides, "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" (almost could be a James Brown title) is a pleasant, slightly hush-haunting acoustic ballad; but how did the classic indie-groove mid-tempo shuffle of tremolo & trepidation, "How Soon Is Now?" originally see existence as a B-side?  John Peel program listeners all over Britain may have choked back the explicable urge to smack Morrissey on the ear, with his "I am human and I need to be loved!" wobbly warbling (he's not wearing his heart on his sleeve, he's wiping his sobbing tear-stained snot on his sleeve), but were mollified as Marr's heavily tremoloed guitar groove won out in the end.

Both "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and its B-side, "Girl Afraid" showcase Morrissey at his lyrical peak, with the former making a strong case for him as one of the wittiest gay English songwriters since Noel Coward, and the latter moodily dissecting the mating dance between those of us unfortunate to be born heterosexual.  Happy in the haze of a drunken hour, the self-help bromides "You've Got Everything Now" so "Accept Yourself" jump'n'thud in jolly contrast to the snootful of jaded lyricism (others conquered love but I ran, no I've never had a job because I'm too shy).  And to round this review off, there's "This Night Has Opened My Eyes", a tender '50s-style ballad concerning infanticide, which oddly enough was the only song that was not re-recorded for another release.  This is your only regular-release LP to find it on, completists.  Fine though this drowned baby may be, she's not worth the price of admission all by her lonesome self, but if you would like the debut shorn of its duller songs, and with the good songs vastly improved, and several singles thrown into the mix, this is one-stop shopping for a taste of the early Smiths.

Oh, and Peanuts comics set to Smiths lyrics!