Thursday, July 28, 2005

Echo And The Bunnymen-Porcupine

For a brief moment, Echo & The Bunnymen seemed poised on becoming England’s next big musical export. Then came The Smiths, but that’s another story altogether, and probably one that is more relevant to my own musical upbringing. Nonetheless, E&TB had a brief shining moment among Anglophiles here in the States and, like The Smiths, never quite fulfilled their promise.
Like I said before, The Smiths had more of an impact on me than Echo. It wasn’t until E&TB released their compilation “Songs To Learn And Sing” that I actually took notice of the band.
About a year or two later, a friend in college who remains a huge musical influence on me today, introduced me to the back catalog of Echo. I’m sure the exposure seemed tepid to him, after all he was preaching the brilliance of Sonic Youth’s “Bad Moon Rising” to me around the same time, but he did rediscover a few of the key nuances of Echo’s third release “Porcupine” after my repeated plays.
Keep in mind, I went through a huge Doors phase in middle school, so I was pretty comfortable with Ian McCulloch’s Morrison replication. But prior to the band’s 1987 single “Bedbugs & Ballyhoo” (which perfectly lifted a Doors keyboard sound) and their version of “People Are Strange” (which did nothing except overshadow the band’s original material) Echo had a stronghold on combining 60’s psychedelia with Britain’s fruitful post-punk output.
Echo’s 1987 album totally turned me off as 1.) it appeared that the band was verged on becoming hugely successful (and big no-no for me at the time) and 2.) I had fallen into the band’s creative counterpart Julian Cope. Julian writes eloquently of the rivalry in his autobiography and I viewed his drug intake during the time as something intriguing. Of course, Mr. Cope was himself catering to the mainstream with the release of “St. Julian" and "My Nation Underground,” but I had just been exposed to his earlier material with The Teardrop Explodes and the acid-fueled solo release “Fried.” He may have followed a linear path with Echo & The Bunnymen, but to me the discovery made it fresh.
It’s been almost two decades since I’d heard “Porcupine” but Sire re-released it with nice packaging and bonus tracks. A recent surge of nostalgia prompted me to fork over full retail price for it and the luxury of hearing the album properly mastered. Listening to it again with several years removed has brought me back to the idea that maybe they were indeed the shit that Cope envied and a pretty stellar group in retrospect.

At first listen (again), I was a little put off by the 80’s production values, but then considered this to be a cop-out as I didn’t feel the same way about dated material from the 60’s and 70’s. I mean, this shit is “hip” now, right? With Yaz on commercials and leg warmers being reconsidered as fashion statements, people are paying top dollar for the sound and vision of 80’s culture. A few deep breaths later, I understood the entire 60’s via 80’s revival and how understated the performances in “Porcupine” were. This band could play and, at times, truly rock. It’s underneath the sheen of the mixing board, but it’s there if you listen close enough.
Each song is awash in reverb and other textures. Lyrically, McCulloch reaches high but falls somewhat short of anything truly significant, unlike say Morrissey, Robyn Hitchcock, or Andy Partridge. But you’d never guess what he’s singing is a tad shallow; he approaches much of the album with an emotive bombast that’s missing in a lot of his 60’s influences. Try to decipher a bit of the song “Clay” for me:

Am I the half of half-and-half
Or am I the half that's whole
Am I the half that's whole
Am I the half that's whole
Are you the wrongful half
Of the rightful me
Are you the mongol half
Of the cerebral me

What the fuck? Thank god the music saves us from this kind of pretension…
I never considered Will Sergeant to be much of a guitarist, but the side two opener “Heads Will Roll” reminded me how clever a guitarist he can be. Sometimes you hear musicians mention how understated and complex Johnny Marr is with his fretwork, but I’ve got to confess that Sergeant is ripe for a rediscovery himself. Playing off effects and changing chord progressions flawlessly midstream, Sergeant is a master of tone and technique.
Admittedly, it was Ian McCulloch that got the band noticed. And while Will’s playing probably stood backstage to Ian’s boyish good looks and badass rooster hair, it’s really the music that transcends decades of fashion sense. But enough about Ian McCulloch’s pouty lips…

The alternative tracks that complete the “Porcupine” reissue are actually a nice edition that helps piece together some of the arrangement attempts that led to the final mix. The choices the band made for the final mix are the best, but the bonus material included is different enough to examine. You also get the nice “discothèque” version of the single “Never Stop” which is pretty cool.
From what I understand, Echo & The Bunnymen are still going at it and releasing new material just as they did a quarter century ago. I’ve also heard that the latest group is kind of bitter about aging and supplements a lot of live performances with Ian being retardedly drunk. I guess he’s fulfilling that Morrisson prophecy after all.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Willie Nelson & Bob Dylan-Live Review

Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson

Cedar Rapids, IA 07/09/2005

Bob Dylan twice in a year? Fuckin’ A. Only this time it’s in a minor league baseball stadium and this time, Willie Fucking Nelson is opening. Bobby, still hot on the tour that never ends supporting his latest album from Starbucks, decided to team up with another troubadour and smoke weed. I’m half kidding about the Starbucks thing. In all actuality, the release at the coffee chain is an essential night from Dylan’s youth, one that has been bootlegged repeatedly and is considered by some Dylanophiles as a crucial performance in Bobby’s career.
He didn’t perform any of that material on Saturday night in Cedar Rapids. Instead, he focused on a few staples from the ’05 tour and threw out a surprise acoustical “Tangled Up In Blue” as the first encore. Other than that, there were no real revelations that night other than the fact a twenty-something girl can still get drunk and fall down from heat exhaustion in the middle of a Dylan set. The paramedics came over, took her blood pressure and still allowed her to stick around until the end of the set. The same wasn’t true for three drunken saps that had to be escorted out of the ballpark by police. Whiskey river took their minds and the Cedar Rapids Police Department took their arm.
Willie did essentially the same set as the other two times I’d seen him. His son, a fucking incredible guitar player himself, did a nice Stevie Ray Vaughn cover and then Dad came back out to show him who pays the bills and has the best herb. Speaking of, rumor has it that the CRPD canine unit parked right next to Willie’s bus and that Mr. Nelson and company splitsville no less than ten minutes after their set was over.

Bob came on after a quick stage change that basically consisted of hauling out the band’s vintage equipment and throwing up the badass Dylan logo over the back of the stage. During “Positively 4th Street,” Soy Bomb jumped up on stage and did a little dance.

The band’s eyes were glued on Bob throughout the entire performance and Bob uttered “Here’s another fucking song I wrote” before each number. Just kidding. But he did prove to be Mr. Sociable once again by failing to acknowledge the crowd even once during the entire performance. The '05 tour finds a nice addition with Donnie Herron on pedal steel which gave the songs a nice twang. Bob again stuck with his electric piano and harmonicas.
After a fucking smoking version of “Watchtower,” Bob met the band on center stage and clutched two harmonicas as the generationally diverse crowd applauded their approval. A park that traditionally houses America’s pastime decided to give the field to two of America’s own that helped change the face of our musical landscape. It was a nice doubleheader from a couple of road dogs that still have plenty of swing left in ‘em.

Bobby’s set:
Maggie’s Farm
To Ramona
Cry A While
Positively 4th Street
High Water
Highway 61 Revisited
Ballad Of Hollis Brown
Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine
Just Like A Woman
Honest With Me
Girl Of The North Country
Summer Days
Tangled Up In Blue
All Along The Watchtower

Monday, July 4, 2005

The Fearless Freaks

Having seen The Flaming Lips in various configurations at least 8 times in their 20 year history, I guess you could say I enjoy these Okie noodlers. The truth is, I love these guys. And my affection is for many different reasons.
The documentary “The Fearless Freaks” nicely summarizes why I’ve followed this group throughout the years. Leader Wayne Coyne is not the most proficient musician in rock, but he may possess one of the most creative minds in it. Coyne finds ways to execute this creativity despite his musical limitations: initially it was through sheer volume and Spencer Gifts gimmickry. When he got too old for Spencer’ s, he enlisted actual talent, most notably in the form of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd. Through it all, bassist Michael Ivins stayed with him, but the warped journey took its toll on his hairline.

“The Fearless Freaks” manages to touch on each phase of their career as well as the three primary Lips’ personal background, which would have turned mortal men into felons. While learning about the drug use, criminal background, and mental difficulties of the band’s family members could have easily turned the film into an episode of “Behind The Music.” Instead, the filmmaker manages to capture so much heartfelt emotion that you get the impression there’s no one as amazed about the Lips’ success as the band themselves.
The Flaming Lips started like so many other bands directly influenced by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk: a couple of brothers and their mutual friends joined up to make a racket after seeing a few nationally known punk bands make a racket in the local club. Being in Oklahoma can be a disadvantage, namely, the musical soundtrack to any bumfuck upbringing can turn you into an A.O.R. loving complacent music “fan.” What they were able to do is to take this upbringing, combine it (unknowingly breaking a fundamental punk “rule”) with punk elements and make a bastardized version of the very thing that makes rock & roll so vital.
To support it, the original trio was on the road all the fucking time. My first exposure to The Flaming Lips came in the form of a Nuggets mix tape a guitarist from a local band made for me in the mid-80’s. He named the compilation “Sonic Cavestomp,” and at the end of all the legitimate 60’s garage tunes he through in the Lips’ “Scratching The Door” from their first e.p. Having no prior exposure of the band or their music, I logically assumed The Flaming Lips were a 60’s band. After all, their name fit nicely next to The Chocolate Watchband.
A few months later, a friend declared “Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips” a masterpiece and made me a cassette copy of it. The album was too long to fit on one side of the C-90 format, so the album closer “Love Yer Brain” started side two and he filled the rest of the side with selections from their debut “Here It Is.” That cassette played continually and with “Love Yer Brain” starting the second side, it forced me to listen to it all the way until the end when the band completely demolished a piano in the studio. A masterpiece it was and I will continue to defend it as such despite all the progress the guys continue to make.
The band regularly performed in Iowa, which was a van ride away from Oklahoma, and I made it a point to see them during their endless tour of “Oh My Gawd.” The performance was life changing: the club was filled with fog, the fog was penetrated by a cheap laser light show, and the music was a sludgehammer of fuzz over (then) drummer Richard English’s no-tom-left-untouched skinwork. Sure I was under the influence and of course it made a difference, but I was clear minded enough to understand that I had witnessed something special.
A year or so later, I was talking with the owner of my favorite collegiate hangout and he was noticeably excited. At least fifteen years my senior, the guy was animated beyond his normal stoner exterior. He explained that The Flaming Lips would be (hopefully) playing there soon. I immediately got on the phone with the provider of aforementioned C-90 and urged him to make the drive from Minneapolis to see The Flaming Lips in such an intimate setting. The club was very small and it typically didn’t have the funding to secure up-and-coming national acts. To make things a little interesting, the club owner later explained to me that he was unsure if he could secure a deal with the Lips, as their rider called for a lot of off the wall goodies that certainly belied the clean and sober statements that Wayne Coyne now likes to project. I believe him now, but back then it would be hard to convince me that Coyne and company didn’t partake in a lot of illegal substances. If you ever saw them live during this phase, you’d surely agree with me.
The deal was worked out and overnight plans were secured for the out of towners to attend.
A very poor local band was tapped to be the openers and, unfortunately for us, we were obligated to attend their performance out of respect and because one of the members in our party used to be in a band with the singer/guitarist. Thankfully, we had a number of different drugs between us all to tolerate their performance and to get ready for the headliners. It became known as a five finger drug night: for every finger on our hand, we complimented with a different drug. Needless to say, we were all pretty tore up before the opening band even ended. Fueling the paranoia was the fact that we hadn’t seen heads or tails of the Lips at all. Eyeballing the club owner, I could determine that he was more than a bit concerned as they had even failed to show up for the early evening soundcheck and faced the real possibility that he was about to be stuck up. The opening act tried to placate the audience and unfortunately co-opted to extend their set a while longer.
Suddenly, the back door to the club opened up and the members in my group let out a collected cheer. The Flaming Lips had arrived. With a brief soundcheck, the band took the tiny stage and immediately filled the club with smoke, lasers, and strobe lights. The band played a total of six songs, but interspersed in them was another two or three. For example, the band would start into “Can’t Stop The Spring” and then would segue into Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and then into a Doors song and, finally, back into “Spring.” We seldom could see the band at all thanks to the enormous fog, but thanks to the strobe, you could vaguely make out a dancing body directly in front of you. It was the equivalent of seeing the band in your own living room with the security of knowing that the neighbors wouldn’t be called because of the noise. For the second time, The Flaming Lips blew my mind live. To thank them, we gave bassist Mike Ivins a few joints for the road.
“Telepathic Surgery” was their third album, and life on the road sounded like it was taking its toll on the band’s creative juices. By this time, I was swooned by The Stone Roses and had essentially written the band off as finished. Their next album, “In A Priest Driven Ambulance” proved me wrong.

In fact, with every subsequent album thereafter The Flaming Lips proved me wrong; despite personnel changes and a jump to the majors, the band never ceased to amaze. It wasn’t until their support tour of “The Soft Bulletin” that I had a chance to see them live again, but their recorded output became fixtures on the play deck with each new release. It was a hoot to see them on “90210,” it was nice to hear the band on top 40 radio with “She Don’t Use Jelly” and it was even better to see them get the critical success that I knew they deserved no matter how many drugs were used to alter my perception.
“The Fearless Freaks” tracks this rise and provides fans and novices with an even better appreciation of how much they had to go through to get there. I never knew the impact of Ronald Jones’ departure, I’ve spent some time contemplating why Jonathan Donahue left, and I wondered how the fuck they got Warner Brothers to release “Zaireeka.’ These and other trivial items are answered in the film and it includes a ton of home movies, personal videos, and live performances including a few that I was actually in attendance.
What isn’t answered is why original drummer Richard English left the band. There were stories floating around the time he left that I would like clarified and, even though Drozd is a better drummer, English’s work definitely added to the soundscape of the band’s earlier work. His whereabouts now are never identified and the reason why he left remains unanswered.
Another item left unaddressed is their tour with Beck a few years ago. Having attended this tour as well, I was convinced that the combination was of historical significance. Coyne later revealed the difficulties in working with Beck and it would have been nice to have this brief liaison mentioned.

These minor details don’t take away anything from the documentary. Indeed, the inclusion of things like Steven Drozd shooting heroin and acknowledging the drug’s destructiveness as he fastidiously prepares his works. If you know anything about Drozd’s enormous talent, you understand how heart wrenching this scene is to watch.
I must confess that, as of late, I’m growing tired of the lack of spontaneity that comprises the Lips’ current live situations. The mixture of audio and video means that many nights are an exact replica of the night before. And even with months in between shows, I’ve noticed how similar performances are, and I felt cynical about it. I guess what I was looking for was at least a few examples of going beyond the setlist. I would have given anything for an impromptu version of “Love Yer Brain” or even a brief sidetracked cover version like the ones you hear in so many of their e.p.’s. What I failed to consider in this is that there are probably more individuals seeing the Lips live than I imagined. I need to be reminded of this and I need to recall how utterly blown away I was the first time I saw them. That feeling was also present the first time I saw the “Soft Bulletin” tour, because the performance combined with the overall message of the songs from that album made yet another impact on my musical memories. The best thing I can do is to encourage everyone to see one of their shows and witness the reason why they remain one of my favorite bands of all time.
I can’t tell you how many times I smiled after discovering yet another batch of confetti remnants from a show long since past. Others need to experience this too. A band that is able to incite these types of feelings are few and far between and, I believe, are getting scarcer. “The Fearless Freaks” is an excellent intimate look at a band that has been able to give its fans such intimate feelings for so long. The best thing the movie does, is provide a feeling that they’re not done trying to make an even longer lasting connection with us all.

Saturday, July 2, 2005

Relocation Expenses

Relatively settled in the second town I’ve lived in with the word “Cedar” in the title. The commute is more of a pain in the ass; it’s like the city planners never considered shit like bottlenecks when expanding the city outward. And it’s a curious expansion as the downtown area is filled with huge homes that, with a little bit of tax relief, could be revamped into huge abodes with character. Then again, what city considers future eyesores when the tax base moves to rural areas that are just going to be incorporated in a few years?

The amenities are here and there’s more of a redneck contingent than my former college bedroom community that was devoid of any real city center. Coralville was simply a place where people could crash at the end of the day and a strip mall developer’s wet dream.
The neighborhood people seem nice and the backyard is a haven for the little dude. We’re utilizing the gas grill tremendously and getting the most out of the fire before it dies on us. The one thing that keeps popping up is the reality that a lot of my shit is on the verge of breaking down and then the reality hits that you need money to replace it all. Prime example is the vehicle situation, which I didn’t fully prepare to address at the moment but may need to regardless of my financial state. Isn’t it a rule that you’ve got to have reliable transportation in order to survive? Automotive issues is a headache I don’t need and yet I’m getting a headache worrying about potential automotive issues. Oh, the irony…
They call these the salad days. What a fucking lie.
Speaking of Minor Threat
Nike skateboarding decided to use, without permission, a carbon copy of Minor Threat’s first e.p. of their upcoming skateboard tour/marketing campaign, creatively titled “Major Threat.” Minor Threat/Dischord Records is steadfastly again any corporate ties and the skater-sellout-marketing department should have (and probably knew) about this conflict. But because Nike is all powerful, they went ahead with it. A few individuals (including yours truly) wrote Swoosh and complained. In just a couple of days, Nike pulled the ad campaign and apologized to Dischord Records and their supporters. I’ve got no problem with a huge corporation trying to tap into a subculture and I’m sure there’s a ton of willing employees who would sell out their beliefs for a paycheck. But the thing is, these people were hired for creative input, and to simply lift an iconic album cover does not demonstrate any sort of creativity. To simply take it without permission is, the last time I checked, a crime.
It’s back to the Adidas Stan Smith for me…And I’m in the market for tennis shoes, bitches..