Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Please Be Kind...Rewind: Eddie and the Cruisers

I saw the last 15 minutes of Eddie On The Cruisers last night and I wondered why, admittedly at a younger age, I considered the movie to be relatively decent.
I say “relatively” because I knew that it wasn’t “great” or “awesome” but it was good enough to have me looking for the soundtrack shortly after seeing the movie.
And by “seeing the movie” I don’t mean actually buying a ticket and seeing it; I don’t think a lot of people actually did that. Me, like a lot of Eddie’s audience, came when the movie was played repeatedly on cable.
I’m sure I was caught up in the film’s whole “Maybe Morrison’s not really dead” vibe, or maybe the whole idea that Tom Berrenger is playing the role of a misunderstood songwriter. I will forever think of him as that dude with the scar that killed William Dafoe in Platoon.
Looking at it today, it’s pretty clear how poorly written the entire thing is: the black dude plays saxophone (just like a thinner version of Clarence Clemons) only later to die from smack, just like black saxophone players are supposed to, I guess. Then there’s the guy that was Guido the killer pimp in Risky Business who plays the band’s managers who can’t get a break after the band breaks up after Eddie’s death. He starts fucking with people by pretending that Eddie is still alive, just so he can get the master tapes from the missing second album. These tapes contained the missing “Fire Suite” section, an “ahead of it’s time” recording because it has three sections, an orchestra, and a coda where they go “Can you see the lights/Can you hear the sound/Can you feel the whole world turning around” over and over, like Eddie was at the forefront of the psychedelic movement, even though it was set in 1964.
There’s a chick in the band, but mostly she dances around fetchingly and plays the tambourine.
Eddie, who looks nothing like John Cafferty, delivers one of the best lines in a fictional rock movie ever. While playing in front of an audience of ultra-white and uber-preppy college students, Eddie pokes fun at their un-coothness with the immortal lines “You college kids got all the advantages…Ivory walls…Lecture halls…And you got the Cruisers for the nasty stuff.” They then proceed to play “Down On My Knees,” a song about begging for forgiveness, instead of the fellatio that the aforementioned “nasty stuff” would hint at.
The other thing about the movie, and I didn’t catch it back then, is how the character of Eddie was really nothing more than the frontman of a band that was pretty average until the Berenger character “Wordman” comes along. I mean, why is Eddie so hell-bent on creating a dark masterpiece for the Cruisers’ second album when he had so little creative input?
And when he doesn’t get his way (meaning, the big bad record company refuses to release the sophomore album Season In Hell, he fakes his own death and grows a beard, like any tortured artist would.
But then we learn it was the chick, the one who just banged on her tambourine and acted sexy, that took the master tapes for the second album and hid them…In a junkyard of all places, the epitome of proper tape storage…that Eddie called “The Palace of Depression,” because he was so misunderstood or something.
While it was amazing to see a low-grossing movie achieve some sort of stardom, in turn turning the soundtrack band (John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band) into hitmakers, it was just as strange watching Cafferty and company watch that success drain when they attempted to duplicate it using their own faces. The public, as it seems, was more comfortable believe that “Eddie” was John and that the reality of a band from Rhode Island with a fairly silly name just didn’t translate into the Springsteen-lite they were obviously shooting for.
Cafferty wisely went back to the silver screen and scored a couple of Sylvester Stallone movies (one was the awesome Cobra) and donned the Eddie moniker for the Eddie & the Cruisers sequel, Eddie Lives!, before returning back to the New England bar scene that brought him to the attention of a few movie producers looking to develop a fictional movie with a thin plot. In all fairness, it’s Cafferty’s songs that even keep this movie worth mentioning today.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'm Such A Hairy Guy

The musical Hair opened on this day in 1968.
I’m not a huge fan of musicals. I’m taking my wife to Rent in a few days for a tidy sum, but she likes musicals and I’m sure that I’ve dragged her to a few things on my behalf.
At the same time, there are two musicals that have served as major influences with me, particularly in regards of my early musical development. Jesus Christ Superstar was one musical and Hair was the other.
My parents had a habit of leaving me with records and allowing me to absorb them in solitude. I swear that I learned a few words by listening to Meet The Beatles, Beggar’s Banquet and these aforementioned musicals. While Jesus Christ Superstar may have taught me a little bit about religion, Hair taught me about some things that, and I’m speaking as a parent now, are questionable considering my age at the time.
I re-purchased Hair in college, having not heard it for a few decades, and was surprised at how blatant, how graphic, the songs were and how so much must have passed over my head. It is the type of album that I wouldn’t allow my five year old listen to, even though I was three years old at the time I heard it first.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hives - Black And White Album

It wasn’t that long ago when The Hives were on that short list of bands that seemed to be sent from above to save us from rock’s growing humdrums. Hard to believe, but around the start of this century, the simple idea of possessing a little bit of attitude, a smidgeon of imagery and a tad of three-chord proficiency got you namechecked as the next big rock thing.
The problem is, when you have that much hype backing something that has their roots in a history of one trick pony, well sir, you have expectations that are excessively high. If it were any different, every band on Nuggets compilation would have a room full of gold records and Sky Saxon would have enough cash on hand to retire wearing gold-plated diapers.
So blame the hype machine for outrageous anticipation and shame on us for thinking that we even need to have The Hives deliver an album that demonstrates a sense of growth. They don’t, of course, and I have to believe that they privately questioned the need to deliver an album that hints at something more than what Veni Vidi Vicious or Tyrannosaurus Hives already provided.
But no, The Black And White Album probably satisfies the major label cocksuckers more than it will the average fan and it includes enough polished rival stomp to place the tunes in music bumpers for sport events and on the playlists of your favorite video game. It assures a label like Interscope that they’re going to get their share through licensing even while the units they actually manage to move are going to be less than what The Hives managed during their apex.
Considering this, The Black And White Album will sound positively wonderful on Madden 08 and through the speakers of sports bars across the country. For the rest of us, we’re left with a memory of when the band seemed a little more dangerous, and perhaps, a little more fun. Any sense of vitriol now seems calculated and the prerequisite anthems seem a little less credible thanks to the full spectrum production.
Speaking of: this was recorded in Mississippi? Shit, you can’t hear a damn thing outside the hermetically sealed recording that seems to bring the distortion with a punch of a button instead of the overdriven glow of an amplifier tube.
It’s not rocket science, is it? Let the guitarists find some infectious riffs, let Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist add a little sass and whip in a caffeinated rhythm section.
Apparently it is; the band tries to demonstrate a few moments that stray from their aforementioned formula (the dance-hall reading of “Puppet On A String,” the choppy electronica of “Giddy Up,” the late 70’s disco falsetto of “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.”) and on each occasion, it sounds uncomfortable and unconvincing.
So if you’ve ever felt that The Hives needed to make an album that shows them growing up, then this album is for you. There’s enough shine on The Black And White Album to make advertisers comfortable with using it for their edgy campaigns. The rest of us, the ones who wonder why someone didn’t just give them a cassette recorder and say “Make a new album.” will have to rest on a much better back catalog to remind us why they even matter anymore.
This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sonic Youth - Master-Dik

There was a time, probably up until Washing Machine, when I would have bought any amount of shit that Sonic Youth threw at me.
Made In U.S.A. soundtrack?
Got it.
“Dirty Boots” CD5?
Mm hmm.
It wasn’t until that Godawful NYC Ghosts & Flowers came out until I realized that, not only were Sonic Youth fallible, they could also release some utter garbage.
I contend that the 1988 e.p. Master-Dik is the first foray into filler, and to go a bit further, the first attempt by a notoriously cool band to make a run at taking the cash of their fans.
Argue all you want, and I would have stood by you with your arguments some twenty years ago. Back then, I regularly incorporated some of the many sound collages on to mixtapes, seemingly considering that their inclusion brought some high art to the compilation.
The reality is, Master-Dik contains a weaker remix of “Master Dik,” a by-the-numbers reading of “Beat On The Brat,” and about twenty minutes of rehearsal footage, inside jokes, noodling, and other unnecessary nonsense.
Originally released in 1988, about the same time that Sonic Youth jumped ship from SST to Blast First, it could easily be attributed as a last-ditch cash-grab by the stoners at SST before one of their money makers went to a larger indie.
But here it is, twenty years later, and Sonic Youth are re-releasing Master-Dik in an attempt at getting some of that cash for themselves. There is no reason why this e.p. couldn’t have been made available for free, as it essentially is a bunch of sonic trash dressed up to look like something important.

For shits and giggles, here’s my take on Master-Dik from several years ago when I was much more appreciative of it:

A fine stop gap with some hilarious liner notes. Also dig the Big Black sticker that came with the initial pressings warning us that this e.p. wasn't "as good as Atomizer...So don't get your hopes up Cheese." Probably the most requested S.Y. effort that I used to tape for people who'd ask: "Can you make me a copy of that Sonic Youth song where they call Gene Simmons an ugly motherfucker?" The stage intros for non-existent jazz players like George Benson is a laugh too. My hopes aren't up. It's not as good as Atomizer. I like cheese. And I like this effort as an ego deflator which was starting to happen when Kim started to put sparkling stars on her jeans during this time. I'm not making that up either. She was wearing them when she got hit in the mouth with the microphone.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gap Band - IV

My family rarely went on vacations that were not within a one day driving distance from my home. It didn’t really bother me and I can no completely understand the financial reasons for such a decision.
There was one time when the three of us did load into our Dodge Aspen station wagon and drive all the way down to New Orleans, stopping in Memphis on the way down before tackling the remaining Bayou drive on the second day.
The Aspen had AM radio, a form of entertainment that seems ridiculously criminative now. I may have brought an equally criminative cassette player that could barely advance the C-90 cassettes, possibly due to the lack of foresight in acquiring fresh batteries before we departed.
AM radio sucks now and back then it was only marginally better.
By the time we reached the Louisiana border, the only station that Dad’s AM radio could pick up was a big wattage urban station out of Baton Rouge. More than likely it has become a station that you’re able to hear locally, as there is very little localism left in radio thanks to endless homogenizing mergers.
But back then, there was some personality.
And back then, they played Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” repeatedly.
It must have been the release week of Gap Band IV, because they played nearly every cut off of it, including the tracks that were never officially released as singles. The focus was “Bomb,” so they played that one often, to the point where my father groaned at the sound of those falling bombs, endlessly searching for a new signal that may have come into range.
He’d twiddle the radio knob, find a barely audible station, and then give up once the static became too much to handle.
Inevitably, we’d end back at that big wattage urban station, waiting for the next installment of the Gap Band.
When your 13 years old and in New Orleans, it’s not terribly fun. I remember roaming the streets while my parents left to get drunk on hurricanes, encountering my first view of a gay subculture, getting kicked out of a Lebanese restaurant while trying to get cigarettes from their vending machine, and being accosted by a prostitute before determining that the seedy nightlife of New Orleans was all too much for my young Iowa mind to take.
When we did return to the Hawkeye station, two songs kept running through my head as musical reminders of the trip: Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy” and Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me.”
I bought both albums as permanent records, but only one of them, Gap Band IV, has withstood the years between and proven to be just as funky fresh as it was the first time I heard it on the airwaves of that Louisiana AM urban station.
Everything about that tune is great: from the aforementioned bomb sound effects to the line (“You were my hope/Baby you were my smoke”) to the woofer breaking synth bass, this is a classic funk song worthy of endless praise.
Start to finish, IV is a classic urban rhythm and blues record, filled with the prerequisite up-tempo funk numbers (“Bomb,” “Early In The Morning”) and the obligatory slow jams (“Seasons No Reason To Change,” “Stay With Me”).
It ends with the awesome “Talkin’ Back,” a free-style funk number with one of the greatest lines ever (“Great gosh all-mighty lemmie see ya baby lets get down with it!”) that James Brown would have give up his popcorn for.
To this day, I spin IV, and there are a lot more memories created where it’s served as a soundtrack. But I still remember where it started, on the AM radio of a Dodge Aspen station wagon, and I can probably guess what my old man thinks about it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Madonna's Immaculate Reception

One of the things I like about The Lefsetz Letter is how it’s primarily in black and white. At work, I typically have about five or six windows up on my monitor, in varying sizes, efficiently switching between the panes as I do my fairly mundane job.
Which is why I try to surf the net as much as possible.
Now writing blog topics is a little tricky because I have to start and stop repeatedly, which doesn’t bode well for stream of thought composition. I’ll usually wait until a break or lunch, but even then, I’m too wrapped up in work related bullshit to think about music.
So in varying lulls, I’ll check my favorite sites and keep a sharp look out for supervisors who may be walking by and notice my surfing during company hours. There are those who don’t give a shit; I noticed one peer blatantly shopping for watches online, but she’s in a less traveled area.
The Leftsetz Letter’s format is perfect as it can actually look like the rest of my screens, meaning, it gives the appearance of me actually doing work as I’m reading it.
In a recent topic, Bob Leftsetz talks about Madonna.
I got the latest edition of Vanity Fair and immediately noticed how airbrushed, how artificial, how unusual Madonna looks now.
It bothers me.
I was one of those infatuated with her during that “chubby” phase in the 80’s, but this post has nothing with how I felt about Madonna back in 1985.
Leftsetz tackles many points regarding Madonna in a recent post. He speaks about the aforementioned appeal of that chubby girl next door whose drive to success was indeed part of the allure.
The God’s honest truth: it wasn’t until I got that copy of Vanity Fair until I considered Madonna had indeed gotten a few “enhancements” to stay youthful. I mean, doesn’t that defeat the entire foundation on what helped fuel her success? The idea that with a ton of drive, even that plain looking girl next door with an arguable amount of talent could become the crown princess of pop music? Yes, I said it: the majority of Madonna’s talent lays in her determination, not in her songwriting, vocal abilities, dance skills, etc. This doesn’t suggest that she doesn’t have talent, she has plenty, but it’s her drive that trumps everything else she was born with or achieved through osmosis or assimilation.
The biggest point of Bob’s original point for me was the fact that Madonna apparently has a top five single out.
Yes, Madonna’s “4 Minutes” was the number 3 song in the country last week, and I have never heard it.
I will admit to not being an active Top 40 listener. Who listens to radio, anyway? But it’s not lost on me, Bob Leftsetz, and I’m sure a lot of others out there at how irrelevant the Billboard charts are these days.
It wasn’t too long ago when I still knew the songs she did that didn’t even crack the top ten, but nowadays, she can have a certifiable hit and I wouldn’t be able to identify it.
I gotta believe, and Leftsetz confirms, I’m not the only one who hasn’t heard it. Hell, it even has Justin Timberlake on it! That fucker should be everywhere.
This reminds me of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” one of the most successful singles ever, topping the Billboard charts for fourteen…FOURTEEN…consecutive weeks. When I learned this, I was flabbergasted that a song that spent over three months as the top song in the country could go by me unnoticed. When I looked to see what some of the longest running number one singles were, I could identify the majority of them, but one of the largest ever, the longest running number one single by any female artist, I couldn’t name at all.
My wife, who’s twelve years younger than me and still listens to commercial radio, couldn’t either, but then again she hates Mariah Carey.
Not that I lose any sleep over this, but I don’t think I’m entirely sheltered to the point where I should be able to recognize the number one song in the country. I mean, shouldn’t I be hearing in through some form of stimuli. The point is (again) how irrelevant these antiquated charts are and how fragmented the industry has become. The hits seem to be fueled by commercials themselves rather than commercial radio. It’s a time when my own parents could easily identify Fiest’s “1-2-3-4” over Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” even when the charting system should prove otherwise.
Again, I don’t lose sleep over this and one of the main reasons is that, before I go to sleep tonight, I’ve got to check out the new Madonna single.
Why I have to actively seek it out when it should be all over my head at this point is another topic entirely.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Robert Wyatt - Comicopera

Robert Wyatt is a verb. Seriously. “Wyatting” is the act of going into a bar with a jukebox and playing the strangest track on it with the only intention being to annoy the other drinkers. From what I understand, Robert Wyatt tracks are perfect for “wyatting,” but I must confess to never actually seeing a Robert Wyatt song on a jukebox, but I have dropped a few quarters on “Revolution 9” to achieve the same effect.
I quickly learned that most bartenders have the ability to reset the device and move on to the next track.
There’s not a track on Robert’s 16th album, Comicopera, that would qualify as annoying. As it stands, every track on it is surprisingly accessible (by Wyatt terms, anyway) even though the subject matter, contemplations on the absurdity of our lives, doesn’t seem like fodder for social drinking.
Instead, it’s an album of incredible introspection, filled to the gills with contributing musicians and dozens of different instruments. Performers like Brian Eno, Paul Weller, and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera join in, along with a guest list of artists from around the world that I’m really too absorbed to recognize, since my tastes run more towards the rock than genres that are probably more important.
And make no mistake, Comicopera has more in common with jazz than it does with the material that probably brought you to this website. So take the album’s perceived brilliance with a big old grain of salt, as it’s an album that people smarter than you listen to, but I question how often.
It’s not because Comicopera is a bad album. Far from it. But the subject matter, the vastness of it all and the huge scope that it takes to address it all, can make for one incredibly dismal album.
Wyatt is a radical, which means that those who align themselves with him and his music will probably be offended by all of this, and I understand why. But then again, Wyatt has offered his own opinion of the ills of this world that, I feel, entitles me to offer my opinion of his take on it. To that point, I’m drained of this kind of cynicism (as well as low-brow variations of it that produce voter apathy) because I feel a strong urge to move forward regardless of how fucked things may seem today.
Part of this may have something to do that I wake up each morning to two kids completely obvious to the world’s problems, filled with unrequited joy that a new day is beginning. So in other words, I gotta fucking believe, because I certainly don’t want them to turn out as embittered as Wyatt seems now.
When Wyatt opines from his wheelchair, regardless of topic, his voice sounds utterly defeated. Whether he’s smacking at organized religion, war, or longing for similar minded radicals like Che Guevara, Wyatt comes across as a sad old man at the end of the bar who offers his opinions to anyone willing to sit long enough to listen and pay for the drinks during the process.
By the end of Comicopera, Wyatt’s singing in Spanish and Italian, metaphorically reminding us that our planet is larger than the one we see outside of our front doors everyday while flipping the bird at the England’s (and America’s) inability at producing a political agenda that meets his approval. So rather than inspire us, he essentially gives up on us, positioning us as too far gone to correct the ills that our elected officials have laid before us.
Unfortunately, the last half of the album also reminds me how awesome the first half of the album was before it transformed into such an indignant drag.
Or, to put it another way, before Robert himself turned Comicopera into another night of wyatting.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Am A DJ, I Am What I Play

So you may have noticed the little LastFm album quilt over to the left there, and now the “Top Artists This Week” widget below it. I got lazy about updating the albums that I’m currently listening to and many people seemed to like the LastFm application.
Initially I resisted because it only tracks the stuff I listen to on the computer. So if I listen to a cd in the car or down in my man-cave, it doesn’t list it. It does have the ability to track iPod usage but I don’t have an iPod.
Yet, anyway.
So I referred to getting one earlier and it will happen in time (read: I have kids and I’m broke), so that’s a subject for another time.
It got to the point where I really didn’t give a shit if LastFm didn’t track my playlists accurately; it was more of an “I’m tired of having to update my recently played list manually” type of thing. This thing does it automatically and, truth be told, I listen to a lot more music on this laptop that I do in my basement anyway.
Again, I have kids.
When I installed LastFm, I fell in love with it immediately. I believe that true music lovers also love the art of categorizing their shit, alphabetizing albums, putting everything into nice accessible and logical sequences. At least I do; my ex-wife used to put shit back into my collection haphazardly until she got sick of me bitching about it that she would then just put it on top of the cd rack and let me put it back.
It takes a sick person to be worked up when Sonic Youth’s Evol is found sitting after Daydream Nation, but that’s me.
LastFm keeps track of the shit I play, the artists, how many times I play them, and as retarded as that all sounds, it’s brilliant. It’s pretty hard to juice it up by playing artists/songs merely on the idea that they’ll be seen as cooler by hipster lurkers.
First of all, it’s pathetically unreliable (more on that later) and secondly, I’m the type of fucker that will suddenly move from Sun City Girls into Janet Jackson because I’m a crazy motherfucker.
So what that means is that I would drive myself crazy trying to impress you because I’m at that point in my life where I don’t care what you think.
Ok, maybe I do a little bit, but at least I can acknowledge how great Midnight Star is while also understand how awful they are.
The other thing I like about LastFm is how it can totally contradict the user. I gave faint praise for Panda Bear’s Person Pitch while showering praise for Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam.
So guess which one I listen to more?
I’m sorry, but “Comfy In Nautica” and the epic “Bros” are just incredible.
I think I might have been wrong in my original assessment.
And Robert Wyatt’s Comicopera? Now admittedly, many of those listens were while I was reviewing the album, but after panning it somewhat, I still continued to listen to it. I’m sheepishly standing by that review, but there are some pretty dark moments on it that I am strangely drawn to.
Now that I’ve gotten all hot ‘n bothered about LastFm, it’s important to note how frustrating it is. There are times, days actually, when something happens and none of my plays get “scrobbled.” I usually go to the forums then to see if someone else is having similar issues only to learn that, at any given moment, hundreds of people are having the same issue, even when mine is working properly.
It’s a free service, I understand this, but I’ll be goddamned if I pay for anything as my experience on the free side has been completely frustrating.
Seriously, there are a number of different “tips” that I’ve used repeatedly in the hopes that I can get the application to work properly only to have it suddenly start working for no apparent reason.
My most recent problem was with an entire evenings worth of listening showing as scrobbled only to check the link the following day to see that everything had been erased.
Regardless, there are enough bells and whistles to keep logging in and checking out what other hipsters across the world are listening to.
It makes me happy that there is a 20-year-old chick in England that is listening to some Dylan at the same time I am, or an 18 year old in Poland that’s spinning “Sister Ray” while I’m cooking to a cut from V.U.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fun In The Cubicle

A few years ago, I wrote something about FM3’s Buddha Machine, a Walkman-like device that plays 9 short loops through a very primitive speaker. It’s nifty, but that Walkman, I put it away when we moved to the new house over a year and a half ago and I completely forgot about it.
Until I was down in the storage room in the basement, the one that also contains my dismantled drum kit, microphones, cables, and other instrumental accessories now haphazardly arranged in boxes and bags. The remnants of a live replaced by one of children, responsibilities, and other mundane routines.
I digress.
I went down there for something unrelated, but noticed the little Chinese box that housed the device. I opened it and tried turning it on, only to find that the batteries had died and, good thing I checked because the cheap Chinese batteries that came with the device looked suspiciously like they were about to start leaking acid.
The machine, the Buddha machine, would have been ruined and my karma would have been negatively impacted.
Understand, the thing only plays an established set of loops and none of them are more than 40 seconds of length. So it wasn’t like I was dying to hear “Loop 3” or “Loop 6,” but I wanted the curio to work again so I replaced the batteries with some more reliable alkaline ones.
Admittedly, it should be used for something more spiritual, I suppose. But my idea fits my lifestyle better. I brought the device to work the next day and placed it in between the cubicle walls of my and my boss’ cube. When she irritates me (which is seldom now, by the way, as we seem to be communicating well) I turn the thing on and await the inevitable “Does anybody hear that? It sounds like an organ.” She’ll then begin looking around her desk for the appropriate source, momentarily considering my suggestion that it must be her wireless headset.
She walked around a bit, asking people if they could hear it and carefully measured the volume as she got farther away from the source. She never considered to look inside the wall or, more appropriately, consider that my shenanigans were the source of the mysterious tones.
It’s quite hilarious, and even more so when she called the maintenance department so that they could investigate. I, of course, turned the unit off by then, which put her in the dubious position of having to both explain the sound to them and offer that she wasn’t crazy.
They left and actually turned up the white noise generators a bit, causing many people to stand up, look at the ceiling and ask to anyone in earshot: “Did they just turn on the air conditioning?” The hiss was reduced after maintenance notices how discomforting their solution was.
“That’s what it was,” my supervisor offered, “because I don’t hear those noises anymore.”
An hour later, I turned the device on again.
50,000 of these units have been sold, creating a veritable cult. I’m sure many of those buyers use the devise for the correct intention, but for me, I’m very pleased with my new found application.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

OCD Chronicles: Thin White Rope "Red Sun"

Burroughspeak for ejaculate, one would think that it was the band name that drew me to Thin White Rope’s “Red Sun” from their 1988 album In The Spanish Cave. The album, by the way, is merely so-so and if I’m being completely honest, most of the band’s catalog follows similar criticism.
But “Red Sun,” is a song so awesome that its snaky slide guitar loop is doing similar stunts inside of my head nearly twenty years later.
Featuring that aforementioned pattern, an-honest-to-goodness spaghetti western horn section, and the raked-over-the-coal vocals of Guy Kyser, it’s one of those songs that seem unique to the band’s cannon and unusual enough to warrant the question “What the fuck happened to Thin White Rope?”
Pegged to the “Desert Rock” movement, Thin White Rope featured a similar dual-guitar strategy that was more akin to Television than the Meat Puppets or Giant Sand. Regardless of what genre they were pigeonholed with, they remain one of those lost treasures from the 80’s and “Red Sun” may very well be their crowning achievement.
They strangely were swooped up from the awesome Frontier record label by RCA where they died an atypical major label death. The band folded in 1992, but “Red Sun” remains a song that would be perfect soundtrack fodder for some dusty western filmed on some remote Southwestern desert.
Inspirational verse: “I’ve become convinced that you’re the one/Because you never flinched under the gun.”

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Cars - Shake It Up

What do you do when your artsy-type pop rock record stiffs? You follow it up with a blatant stab at commercial appeal.
And, sadly, you lose a little bit of respect in the process.
Shake It Up isn’t necessarily a bad record, it’s just a predictable and tepid affair that takes all of those potentially bad things from Panorama and turns them into, well, bad things.

That would be the layers of keyboards that have gone from nifty to kitschy here, with nearly every ounce of the band’s once mighty muscle turned into skinny tied geekdom.
It’s also the album that hasn’t aged well either. Since it’s a blatant stab at radio-circa-1981 appeal it sounds like the time capsule soundtrack they buried at the Galleria.

Speaking of, I remember running into a pair of denim-clad critics about a week after Shake It Up was release. Since I loved Panorama, I bought Shake It Up when it was released only to be thoroughly disappointed. My two classmates were pondering the new releases section and I overheard them sounding unimpressed with The Cars. “There last album sucked” said one of the fellows, adding that they had turned into some “new wave shit.”
That pissed me off, so I strangely misinformed them that Shake It Up sounded just like their debut.
A few days later, I overheard a few other guys in art class discussing Shake It Up.
“I heard that it sounds just like the first album.”

There are moments of pure joy, particularly with the opener “Since Your Gone,” which misleads the listener into thinking that the Cars’ fourth album may be that elusively refined pop record that straddles creative ingenuity with commercial appeal.

By track two-the huge hit title track-you understand that The Cars by this point in their career don’t give a shit about making a statement; they care about making a buck.

There’s a bit of redemption with “I’m Not The One,” possibly the band’s best ballad outside of “Drive,” but it’s quickly forgotten with the two pieces of pure filler (“Victim Of Love” and “Cruiser”) that complete side one.

The sleepwalking continues throughout the second side with only “Think It Over” sounding like it managed to raise the pulse of any band members.

Ocasek completely abandons any attempts at progressing as a songwriter too, seemingly taking the lumps that came after Panorama’s lofty lyrical attempts and turning them into such prose as “She’ll take it fast and she’ll take it slow/She’ll tell you things that you should not know” (“Victim Of Love”).

However, it was this lowest common denominator that struck a chord with the record-buying public, as Shake It Up was one of the band’s best selling efforts. My bitter-fueled recommendations apparently worked, even though I’m fairly certain those saps knew that it sounded nothing like the debut.

I speak of them despairingly because I know they were right: Shake It Up is nothing more than a bunch of new wave shit.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Cars - Panorama

I love third albums. When you look at the careers of most bands, I think you will notice that album number three often shows the performer at their most challenging, experimental, confident, or downright desperate.
Think about it: an artist will usually spend their entire life creating that first album (metaphorically speaking) while album number two tends to contain the leftovers. By the third album, you’ll see the band getting bored with their old formula and taking steps in trying to change it.
Radiohead’s third? OK Computer.
Jimi Hendrix? Electric Ladyland.
Shaun Cassidy? Under Wraps.Well, not every artist fits into this formula of turning things upside down.
But The Cars did, and it shows in the wonderful pretention that is their third album Panorama. David Robinson’s drums, which were a wonderful contradiction of robotic timekeeping fueled through a real live analog kit, are replaced with an electronic one, thereby erasing any evidence that it was indeed Robinson performing.
The liner notes state as such, but they also say that he served as the “art director” for the album, so who knows what his workload was like.
And then there’s Benjamin Orr, the velvet-throated co-singer who crooned on some of the band’s most notable tracks. His role in Panorama is reduced too, leaving the quirky Ric Ocasek as the primary vocalist throughout the album.
This is understandable, I suppose, when one considers that Ocasek penned all of the tracks. There is so much nonsensical “art” sticking out of his lyrics (“I want to float like Euripides/All vision’s in tact”) that there’s no way anyone else would consider tackling them.
Seriously, one can imagine the dialogue taking place during rehearsals (“Dude, I have no idea what this means. Why don’t you just sing it?”) that left Ocasek as the default guy. Gone are the simple laments of his best friend’s girl, moving in stereo, or liking the nightlife, baby. Ocasek replaces them with big, meaningful couplets that are more silly than clever.
Being the primary creative muse also means that he would become the fall guy if Panorama stiffed. And it did; The Cars third release ended up becoming their worst in terms of actual sales and that’s because there’s barely a hit to be found on it. Oh sure, “Touch & Go” briefly touched the top forty, but not enough to require a follow-up and, more importantly, not enough to get people to buy Panorama.
Regardless of all of this shit working against it, I happen to love Panorama. Even upon its original release, I liked the experimentation, the challenges, the pretentiousness…I liked it all. None of my friends did; their reaction was similar to the general public’s, so I felt a little more like a “true fan” with every subsequent spin. While I watched fans of the debut and Candy O fall by the wayside after hearing Panorama, I stuck it out with the hopes that The Cars would turn into that artsy band from Boston financed by the success of their first two albums.
The music here, as synth focused as it is, proves to be very rewarding. There’s a wide pallet of sounds within those keys and guitarist Elliot Easton, seemingly knowing his role is limited on the album in many regards, makes the most out of every single solo. The rhythm guitars also benefit from the focus on Greg Hawkes synth-work. Each six string sounds like it utilized a different guitar or amplifier, creating wonderful varieties as a result.
Even with all of this blatant pretension floating around, I’ll be goddamned if Ocasek doesn’t come within an eyelash of actually succeeding in making that arty record he envisioned. Panorama may be a departure from The Cars or Candy O, but it’s just as consistent as them. And like those aforementioned classics, I don’t find myself skipping ahead; it works well as an entire album with plenty of hooks that take repeated listens to discover.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

She and Him - Volume One

True story: I picked up this album and a few others at Barnes & Noble. Let me explain: I don’t normally shop for music there, but I happened to receive a 40% coupon one day in my inbox. It was good for one weekend only and it could only be redeemed in-store.
So I go to Barnes & Noble, kids in tow, and I’m quickly perusing the cds when I really want to absorb them, just like I would if I was there alone.
Just like the good old days of record shopping.
I’m not alone, and the two that I’m with are four and 10 months. The four year old is still trying to understand why we’re there, since I told him that we needed to pick up some bread. He’s no dummy. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, he correctly declared, “We don’t get bread here.”
I explain that I need to pick up something first, so then he’s all set for an in-and-out job, which is something that I do not do when shopping for music. And since I don’t really have a plan of what to buy (the 40% off thing just prompted this spur of the moment decision), it’s very unlikely that we’re going to be quick about this stop.
No sooner do I reach the “H” section, the four year old starts bringing up ridiculous cd titles to me based entirely on the cover art and asking “Daddy, can I have this?” Meanwhile, my 10 month old has officially outgrown the Baby Bjorn as I’m struggling to get a line of sight to the products. I can only see the cds by looking around her head, which causes her to look at me to see what I’m doing which ends up blocking my vision entirely again.
It’s time to get the fuck out of Barnes & Noble.
One of the things that I do grab in a mad dash to the checkout register is She & Him. I only know two things about it: 1.) that Matt Ward is the “Him” of the duo and that 2.) It’s been getting a lot of decent press lately. I take a gamble and bring it up.
The clerk guy notices it and exclaims “That’s my last copy of this.” I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. My first reaction is to be an asshole and say, “Well then, let me put it back for you.” but then the baby starts whining and my main goal is to now pay and leave quickly.
“Is this getting a lot of airplay or something?” he asks, doing his best to be the chatty record store guy that, on any other day, would be more than happy to converse with.
“I don’t know.” I reply in between baby talkin’ in my daughter’s ear, trying to avoid a meltdown.
I briefly contemplate whether it’s 1995 again and record sales are indeed influenced by radio. I can’t recall the last time I ever bought anything thanks to radio airplay. “I’ve just heard some good things about it” I added, trying to not dissuade the clerk from interacting with those remaining souls that still buy cds while also attempting not to come across like a douchebag. Just as quick as I feel guilty, I remember, I’ve got a motherfucking baby strapped to the front of me. There’s no need to feel bad here! The guy should understand that I’m a little pressed for time. Ring me the fuck up or face a screaming baby in your jazz-fueled section!
“I had no idea that Zooey Deschanel could even sing!” he adds, causing me to stare blankly back at him in silence with a look that could only say, “Is it time for me to enter my pin number?”
It doesn’t bother me at all that I have no idea who Zooey Deschanel is. Fuck man, I’ve just now figured out who the cast of Cruel Intentions consisted of. That may make me uncool, but it’s still not as uncool as being close to my age and working at Barnes & Noble.
But of course, I still go home, surf the internet while listening to Volume One, and discover that Zooey Deschanel is some actor that I should know about from Elf and that other movie and, apparently, fancies herself as a singer on the side too. There are many accounts of people, including critics, exclaiming that she has a decent voice. In the next line, they also usually refer to Deschanel’s indie cred and how she looks cool.
I did not make that up either.
But for my money (which ended to be around $7.50, by the way) there is positively nothing remarkable about Ms. Deschanel’s vocal abilities and I could give a rat’s ass about her alternative “Q” score at all. There are moments on Volume One where she sounds like Jenny Lewis, there are others where she sounds like Leslie Gore, and there are other times in which she sounds a little like Melanie. All are perfectly fine inspirations but, like a good acting role, none of them show me anything about who Zooey Deschanel is. And fuckin’ a: if you’re going to cover “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” acapella…ACAPELLA! I’d better know you’re not jerking my chain.
M. Ward sound just a responsible too, floating in and out of SoCal mid-60’s pop to SoCal alt-country to early 60’s girl-group revisions with barely a hint of his lineage or leadership.
Volume One is a mess, but it’s a pleasant one. There’s not a thing on it that would have you reaching for the “stop” button, although “Chariot” did have me considering it and the duo’s cover of The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” is nearly unforgiveable.
My prediction is that Volume Two, if there is one, won’t nearly be the curio as this one is proving to be based on the sales and hype coming out of the gate. And while She & Him may be placing Zooey Deschanel in a different light in some people’s eye, the album is certainly putting M. Ward in a different light for me, and not the one I’m sure he intended.
Let me clear: there’s nothing here that will turn anyone off, but there is an air of hot air lurking in these AM radio memories and not a lot of soul either. Had I spent more than $7.50 on Volume One, I probably would have been a little more critical of the album’s better moments that effortlessly flow from these two charming collaborators. But while charm may make She & Him tolerable, it sure as hell doesn’t make them memorable.