Yeah, I know, it's not much of a title for a music
column, but you probably picked this guide up for free anyway,
so quit yer complainin'. Besides, it gives me a reason to start
using a ratings system (for all those who, like me, prefer a user
friendly precise option in their media reviews):
^^^^^= Five chips- The salsa's great and the chips are eternally
refreshed. Dunk at will and repeatedly. Own this.
^^^^ = Four chips- The chips are a wee tad staler than you would
prefer. Enjoy the salsa, though, 'cause it's mighty tasty. You
might want to own this.
^^^ = Three chips- Salsa's less than perfectly fresh and the chips
are still stale. It adequately mimics the peach salsa experience,
but that very special something is missing. Borrow this at least.
^^ = Two chips- It physically resembles chips and salsa, but it
ain't it. Don't feel bad if you miss hearing this.
^ = One chip- It seems to resemble a foodstuff, but who knows what
it is anymore? If you must, crane your neck briefly to take notice
of this, as you would a car wreck on the highway.
_ = No chips- Better you eat cow chips than this. Avoid this and
warn your friends to avoid this. Please.
All set? Good. Now for the new reviews…
Ah… let me see… I started with the station back in
1988… there was a hawkish, seemingly uncaring President in
the White House… the Campaign season was reinforcing certain
ignorant people’s fear of free speech and expression, and
those people were encroaching on such institutions as the National
Endowment for the Arts and the Federal Communication Commission… basically
a time that any organ of free speech (that is speech relatively
free of the direct control of THOSE VERY RICH GUYS) was made to
feel under fire…
Oh, so that’s what’s been happening lately. It’s
not an encroaching erosion of our civil rights by fearmongers and
backwards thinkers. It’s just late eighties nostalgia.
Alright, I think I have some cures for that. Let’s start
with nostalgia for the pre-war (well, pre-this- war) year of 2002.
The Black Keys (singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick
Carney) burst on the scene from Akron, Ohio with a sound not
unlike their Midwestern cousins, the other guitar drum duo The
White Stripes. But where the Stripes’ sound most frequently
recalled punk and new wave (through their own post-modern lo-fi
filter), The Keys are more reminiscent of that Jeff Beck-ish,
late 60’s Brit-Blues-Rock. That is, reminiscent of the
best things about that sub-genre. Dan Auerbach’s vocal,
in fact, recalls contemporary Blues influenced Brit-pop singer,
Ben Ottewell (from the band Gomez).
The Keys also seem share a love of groove and jamming with Gomez,
all in full evidence in their debut, The Big Come Up (Alive,
May, 2002) (^^^^½).
(And, yes, it took me two years to get around to hearing this
album. For this you can thank iffy distribution and the fact that
I don’t travel to the Midwest much. Hey, the wheels of college
radio grind exceedingly slowly, but they get their groove on sooner
or later. Or, in comparison to our commercial brethren, sooner…)
The deliberately “medium fidelity” nature of the recording
(as it is referred to in the liner notes), give a wonderful garage-y
feel to everything. Who knew that you could get the perfect snare
drum sound if you aped the sound you get when you close the hood
of your 1994 Chevy? It’s that explosive snap, and your basic
groove sensitive percussive work, that so allows Carney’s
drums to meld so beautifully with Auerbach’s distorted but
melodic guitar. That’s the sound you’ve got to achieve
when you’re just two guys trying to sound like four or five.
The songs explore territories familiar to the blues. A woman has
left, followed by much moaning and/ or shouting. A funky groove
is laid down with an invitation to dance, which doubles as an ever
so slightly camouflaged solicitation to, as Howlin’ Wolf
said, “Do the Do.”
Do the Rump” is the latter. “Busted” is the former. “Countdown” is
a funky “leavin’ you” tune, so that splits the
difference. The tune also features Gabe Fulvimar with a shifting
Moog drone that ably apes a Hammond B-3 (ancient tech subbing for
still more ancient tech).
The most amazing thing here? These guys are in their twenties and
sounding this good, with plenty of room for musical growth, as
evidenced in their follow-up, last year’s Thickfreakness,
which managed to show up in these parts courtesy of well-deserved,
though a tad late arriving, distribution from Fat Possum and Epitaph
labels. Blues fans take note: there are some new musical primitives
to take note of. They travel light and play heavy, heavy soul…
Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree and No-Man (the British group
with Tim Bowness, not American Roger Miller’s project) has
been making music for something like twenty years now. And it seems
that he’s only lately been hitting his stride, with production
work for Swede heavy-metal band Opeth, P-Tree’s excellent
2002 album In Absentia, and lately with his collaboration with
Israeli musician Aviv Geffen, the lyrical and ambiently beautiful
Blackfield (Helicon (Israeli import), February, 2004) (^^^^½)
(go to www.blackfield.org for more info).
Of course, that’s no knock on Wilson’s previous work.
Far from. Wilson has molded his pop sensibilities and songwriting,
sharpening lyrically (as with the chorus “all I have left
are my precious scars” on “Scars”) and vocally
(able to remind one of early Genesis one moment, Crosby, Stills
and Nash the next), and not losing a love for the more organic
electronic textures of mellotrons, while throwing down full orchestral
textures (as on “Lullaby”) and even groovy dance beats
(on the breaks in the middle of “Scars”).
With Geffen (no relation to David, so far as we know), Wilson has
concocted a winningly dreamy pop album, which, even lyrically recalls
the work of Matthew Sweet. What is awfully close to a goth/morbid/romantic
fascination intersects with soaring melodies and scorching guitars.
The result lands very much in Matthew Sweet territories of Carpe
Diem seduction and rock and roll.
The ultimate upshot of it all is that Wilson, coming out of the
prog-rock scene, has done what the best musicians of that scene
(say, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford and, most of the time, Robert
Fripp) have done. He’s grown into an artist defying such
labels. Good stuff.
They Might Be Giants are back with a new EP on the heels of the
documentary “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns” which
arrived in Hartford at Real Art Ways last year (Sam Hatch and
I had director AJ Schnack as a guest on Culture Dogs on that
occasion). In fact, one of the tunes referenced in that film,
the playful “Ant” makes a second EP appearance with
a new version on Indestructible Object (Barsuk, April, 2004)
(^^^½). “Ant,” in typical TMBG style, confronts
us with the idea that what ants and presidents do often goes
unnoticed while we sleep. “Am I Awake?” begins the
EP, which is… well, pretty typically funny and quirky Giants
fare. “Memo to Human Resources” is an offbeat declaration
of independence from employee to employer, or, at least, a declaration
of free thought.
And I, being completely fulfilled in my day job, just cannot relate
to that. Haha.
Neptunes Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams team once more, not in
their guise as producers to the stars, but, with Shay completing
the trio, the more rock oriented N.E.R.D. (an acronym that means “No
one Ever Really Dies”). Well, almost. Adding to the musical
schizophrenia that created rock stars from star rap and pop producers
(on the plus side, Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”;
in iffier territory, Britney Spears’ "I'm a Slave
4 U"), the new N.E.R.D. is “produced by the Neptunes.” The
reality of N.E.R.D.’s second album, the pop-py and genre
stretching Fly or Die (Virgin, March, 2004) (^^^½), is
that it challenges our ideas (as so much good music should) about
how, even if, music should be classified.
For all the help they get from Joel and Benji Madden (the twins
heading up pop-punkers Good Charlotte), British producer Andrew
Coleman, Lenny Kravitz and Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson,
Fly’s sound is pretty minimal, deceptively simple and surgical
even. But it’s a slightly different kind of minimal to their
more pop material. “Wonderful Place” wanders without
abandon through Bacharach-esque pop, Chicago-like (the band, that
is) horn and rhythm arrangements, rap rhythms, soulful vocals and
post Shuggie Otis psychedelia. “Backseat Love,” “She
Wants to Move” (with its’ now semi-infamous hook, immortalized
in a literal video interpretation ("Her ass is a spaceship
I want to ride"), and “The Way She Dances” combine
the spiritual, the carnal and the funky in a way that purple guy
could appreciate. “Drill Sargeant” is a poppy, anti-military
tune, reminiscent of XTC or Matthew Sweet in its guitar and vocal
driven sound. A further evocation of Shuggie Otis and 70’s
psychedelic soul in general, is evident in the structure of the
over 7 minute tunes, “Wonderful Place” and “Drill
Sargeant,” which are split up into separate sections (or “parts”)
ready for single release.
Pharrell and Hugo (with Shay) should be able to keep this fun little
side project going as long as they keep employing this level of
flexibility and inventiveness. Heck, it’s almost enough to
make me want to pick up their 2001 production, Lil’ Bow Wow’s
Also keeping things simple and ridiculously prolific, if with
less popular success, is former Young Fresh Fellows frontman Scott
McCaughey, whose going concern for over a decade, between sessioning
for Marc Eitzel, John Wesley Harding, Robyn Hitchcock, Liz Phair,
R.E.M. and Pete Yorn, has been his relatively loose aggregation
of talent known as The Minus 5.
When last we heard from “the 5,” McCaughey and R.E.M.’s
Peter Buck were joined by, among others, members of Wilco for the
ironically titled Down with Wilco. It was during the early negotiations
of that teaming that McCaughey recruited his “Wilco 5” during
the “closing ceremonies” of their beloved Chicago nightspot,
Lounge Ax, in January 2000. As the story goes, McCaughey arrived
with, as McCaughey’s notes say, “a bunch of hastily
scribbled songs… which were performed, if not rehearsed.”
That March, in Seattle, McCaughey teamed once again with Buck,
as well as guitarist John Ramberg and Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin
to set down some hastily organized studio versions of ten of those
tunes, then sold that limited edition cheap at some of their gigs.
But it wasn’t until now that that material was made available
through any kind of national distribution. It wasn’t until
Yep Roc records (who picked up the delayed Down with Wilco due
to similar corporate shenanigans to the ones that held back Wilco’s
own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ) entered the picture that McCaughey decided
to organize a version of In Rock (Yep Roc, February, 2004) (^^^)
for general release. After reentering the studio last year, refining
things ever so slightly with contributions by John Wesley Harding
and former Presidents of the United States of America frontman
Chris Ballew (among others), McCaughey lopped off two of the original
CD’s tracks, and added four new numbers. The result is some
good, simple, earnest and intelligent guitar pop.
The album starts out with the post-surf instrumental “Bambi
Molester,” one of the new additions. Ballews bass pumps under
distorted tremolo guitars and Hammond B3 drones. “Dear My
Inspiration” finds McCaughey trying to get in touch with
his not-so-embodied muse, begging for “a lullaby,” while
the music frugs away, like a more polished version of the Kingsmen
or the Count 5.
And 60’s garage pop sounds are pretty par for the course
in this set, whether it’s a lyrical musing on mortality and
futility (“A lonely coffin is the best for all you’ve
done,” McCaughey muses on “In a Lonely Coffin”)
or workweek malaise (“The Forgotten Fridays”) or post-Beatles
seduction songs (“The Girl I Never Met”) or Austin
Powers’ arch nemesis (or someone like him, on “Dr.
Evil: Doctor of Evil”).
Hey, it’s Spring, after all! Isn’t it time for guitar
Heck, isn’t it always?
Sure, they recently released a long bootlegged mid-sixties Dylan
live set, but the real treasure worth remembering, from the time
when men were men and punks were punks, is Dead Kennedys’ Live
at the Deaf Club (Manifesto, January, 2004 (^^^^½). Jello
Biafra and company displayed ample creativity in the studio,
but it’s here, in this live set recorded in March of 1979,
that they display the incendiary power of their live shows. 1979’s
Biafra continually makes anti-disco cracks (encouraging the crowd
to “Dance, you lemmings!” on the “disco version” of “Kill
the Poor,” and admonishing the band to stay in tune because
this is their “big chance with Robert Stigwood”),
and rails against the spreading militaristic culture (with the
proto-version of “When You Get Drafted,” “Back
in Rhodesia”) and L.A. and California cops run amok with,
of course, “California Über Alles” and “Police
Truck.” The line-up was a unique 5-piece for the Deads,
including frontman Biafra, Klaus Flouride on bass, East Bay Ray
on guitar, Ted on drums, and 6025 on guitar. The set even premieres
the previously unreleased “Gaslight” with lyrics
Fans of the DK’s should consider this a must-buy, but you
young hotshots take note also, coz this is Grandpa talkin’ (of
all of 38 years yet): the DK’s were the soul of Punk Rock
politics. Remember that? Before the days when Green Day and Blink-182
co-opted punk energy for pop hits? (Of course, they should be the
first and definitely won’t be the last to “sell out” the
energy of punk to lesser-brained politics (though I’m sure
they are very nice people who can sling mud at major soda pop sponsored
pop festivals with the best of them)) The DK’s are the real
thing, confronting ugly Americana with the bloodier side of its’ history,
while armed with hefty doses of irony. It’s something the
big clampdown doesn’t want you to have.
And, as if the music and the history wasn’t enough, this
disc includes a pull-out flyer inviting you to join the “Department
of Federal Eradication And Retaliation” (“F.E.A.R.”)
by “(turning) in a neighbor, friend or family member and
(earning) ca$h now!” The clipout coupon is addressed to “Mr.
Fear ? Dept. of Homeland Security, 666 Bechtel Plaza, Enron, TX
Hey, like I said, who needs eighties nostalgia when we’re
reliving it in spades?
Well, that’s all for this issue. Please join me for more
attempts at musical guff every Friday night/ Saturday morning from
Midnight to three a.m. on the “Call It Thing” show,
in the Friday Gothics slot.
Until next time, see you on the radio.
Copyright©WWUH: May/June Program