Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New Music Review

Jimi Hendrix
Valleys of Neptune
Experience Hendrix/Legacy

If you're anything like me (which is to say that your an aging, somewhat pretentious, overly analytical music snob), then you probably have a different attitude towards classic rock than the average person. You probably grew up with it, embraced it, outgrew it while holding on to some small portion of it, and then coming back to it again at some point. After careful consideration, I've decided that there are a total of five categories that all classic rock acts fall into. Bands are categorized differently by different people, but I think the following covers all of the bases.

Category 1 - Loved it Then/Love it Now. This is the stuff you cut your teeth on and continue to listen to for your whole life. For me, the Stones belong here, as do The Who, The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan and a handful of others. Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath are on the cusp, if not in; I still *love* both bands, and am not sick of them, per se, but I don't really listen to either voluntarily unless it happens to come on the radio.

Category 2 - Loved it Then/Still Appreciate it Now, but Sick of it. This grouping is for the bands that you adored growing up, but then one day you just woke up and decided they didn't have unlimited replay-ability, and you tire of it. The wrinkle with this category is that you don't really hold anything against the band, and probably would go see them if you had the opportunity. Led Zeppelin is probably the biggest example of a Cat 2 band for me. A lot of people would have them in Category 1, which is fine, but the list of Zeppelin songs that don't get turned off when they come on my car stereo is a very short one. But if they reformed and did a full tour, I would be all over it. I still think they're a fabulous band, I just got sick of hearing it constantly. The Doors are another band that I would classify as Cat 2. Cream probably belongs here for me as well. You would probably find a lot of less celebrated bands like Bad Company here. Again, this will vary by person, but I think you will find a lot of commonality.

Category 3 - Didn't Care for it Then/Dig it Now. This is probably more applicable to college rock than classic rock, but these are the bands you ignored or dismissed the first time around, and then you later realize you like or possibly even love them. For me, I would put The Faces here, because they didn't get much radio play growing up, and I didn't discover them until later. I guess The J. Geils Band belongs here too. I thought they were okay growing up, but I knew them as the top-40 band who did "Centerfold" (which is a fine song, to be fair), and didn't realize they were basically the greatest bar band of all time until much later. Steely Dan is a band who would fall into this category for a lot of people, though not me. I never cared for them.

Category 4 - Liked or Loved it Then/Ashamed to Admit it Now. Ah, the days of misspent youth. I will probably get drummed out of the amateur music critic's union for this, but I really loved The Grateful Dead at one point. I owned multiple Yes albums. I thought that Rush's 2112 was a masterpiece. I believe I've purchased the first Boston album on every format, excepting 8 Track, at least once. Everybody has these, and it's truly one of the things that makes each of us an individual. I think bands like Kansas, Styx, Foreigner, Journey, Jethro Tull, and Aerosmith are what wind up here for most people. Unfortunately, AOR radio still plays the shit out of this stuff, and there's no escaping it. The key to Cat 4 is that at least there is some nostalgic value to most of the bands in it. You may not like the music anymore, but it doesn't make you want to stab yourself in the ear drums with a steak knife. It may take you back to a place in time that you remember fondly, or at least you can laugh about how dreadful your musical taste was when you were younger.

Category 5 - Hated it Then/Hate it Now. Ah, the dreaded Cat 5. This is the music that just flat out sucks, and you hated it from the first time you heard it. Like all the other categories, this varies from person to person, but I think you'll see a lot of the same bands wind up on many people's shit-lists. For me, I think the artists who belong here are REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne and Elton John. This category by itself probably merits a 2,000 word piece. I'd love to have some input about others' opinions about which bands belong in this cellar.

In my own estimation, Jimi Hendrix is probably a Category 2 artist, though that shouldn't be held against him. Are You Experienced, Electric Ladyland and Axis Bold as Love are all pretty heavy hitters that stand the test of time. What they don't withstand, unfortunately, is ubiquity. Classic rock radio stations ruined Hendrix for me, and the fact that he only turned out three studio albums is a big reason why. If he would have lived longer, and put out more material, perhaps it would have been more spread out (if the Stones had only released Exile, Sticky Fingers and Let it Bleed, I might have gotten sick of all that - okay, maybe not). For the last 15 or so years of my life, the only Hendrix I've ever been able to listen to is the Band of Gypsies stuff, because that never go airplay. At least that's how it's been until now.

Valleys of Neptune is by no means a complete album; it's just a bunch of stuff that's gone unreleased up until this point. Even still, a lot of it's not a huge departure from things you've heard before. There are alternate versions of Hendrix staples "Stone Free", "Fire" and "Red House", as well as an instrumental version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love", of which I've heard multiple live versions Jimi played over the years. If you take those out of the equation, then that leaves a total of eight songs that you can't possibly be sick of yet, and I think that's pretty decent.

The thing I like best about this album is that it's split up about evenly between recordings he made with The Experience (Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding) and Band of Gypsies (Buddy Miles and Billy Cox). Those are two very different animals, and I really came to enjoy the subtleties associated with each of them. The Experience has more of a straight-forward Rock n Roll feel to it, whereas Band of Gypsies is more free-form and experimental. Because of this split, I think I will come to enjoy this release more than I would an entire album worth of material with either band serving as the accompaniment.

The reason why many consider Jimi Hendrix to be the greatest guitar player of all time is because he probably was. Even if you don't agree with that statement, there's no way you could logically put him outside of the top 5, especially considering the era in which he came up. The reason why you're probably sick of his music is because he died too young, and his catalog is small. This is a welcome addition to it, and should at least be a nice refresher course in how much you enjoyed it when you first discovered rock music. If nothing else, it'll serve as yet another reminder of what might have been.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sometimes It Sucks to Say Goodbye

Alex Chilton
December 28, 1950 – March 17, 2010

I got the news that Powerpop god Alex Chilton passed away just before I went to bed on Wednesday night. I'm still in a state of shock. 59 years is a short life span in this day and age. Sure, the rock n' roll lifestyle doesn't lend itself to longevity, but something tells me that Alex's days of hard partying were past him. The bottom line here is that I idolized Alex Chilton, and I'm disappointed that he's dead. Most disappointing of all is that I know he had another masterpiece in him somewhere.

I'm not here to write about the history of Alex Chilton's life music. That's been done countless times over the course of the last few days, and in many cases, done very well. Not to mention, if you're reading this blog, you're probably rather familiar with it and don't need me to recap. I honestly don't know what I'm here to do. I just know that one of my heroes is dead and I'm kind of bummed about it.

I'm really glad to say that I got to see Big Star play once. If only the 'modern era' lineup (Chilton, original drummer Jody Stephens, and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies) played more frequently, I would have seen it more often. But once is better than never. I saw them at the Southern Comfort Music Festival at Centennial Park in May of '06. The Flaming Lips headlined day 2, and Big Star went on right before them. It was a great set. They played all the hits you would expect from #1 Record, Radio City and Third and then some. They did of a cover of an obscure bubblegum song called "Patty Girl" originally recorded by an Ohio group called Gary and the Hornets. It was fantastic. In fact, the only complaint I had about their performance was that they only played one song of 2006's In Space.

Chilton's body of work is enigmatic, if not bulletproof. Though predominantly known for their biggest hit, "The Letter", which was recorded when Chilton was just 16 and went on to become a number one record, The Box Tops did some pretty cool shit in their day. It was blue-eyed soul with a psychedelic twist. "Cry Like a Baby" hit number two in February of 1968. That track has a sitar on it. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that there weren't any other white boys in Memphis in the late 60's releasing records with eastern instrumentation on them. And then at age 20, he formed Big Star. That's just amazing. The guy gets a huge taste of commercial success as a teenager, then goes on to form one of the biggest cult bands this side of The Velvet Underground. All of this before he turned 21. You could say this his output past the age of 25 or so is inaccessible, or in some cases bad, but that doesn't change the fact that he crammed a long career's worth of classic songs into just a few years.

As for Big Star, what needs to be said? Big Star is easily one of the five best American bands that ever got together. Sure, they were largely ignored during their original run, due to poor marketing and distribution, but it would seem that almost every single person that was able to get their hands on a copy of #1 Record went on to form a band, and most of them were good, unlike The Velvets, who spawned plenty of good bands, but also a lot of self-indulgent, pretentious artsy crap. The Replacements, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet. These are just a small sampling of the artists who owe a great debt to Chilton's work. Pretty impressive, no? Hell, I wish Westerberg would write songs about how great I am. Not to mention, pretty much all of the Big Star material is timeless. Most of the songs from those albums wouldn't sound out of place if they were released today.

I really don't know what else to say, so I'll start wrapping things up. I wanted to write something about this while it was still fresh in my mind, and I've been so busy lately that I was afraid that I wouldn't get a chance if I didn't do it now. Suffice it to say that Alex Chilton was a true genius; he was a phenomenal singer, one of the best songwriters and lyricists I've ever heard, and his guitar chops were sneaky great. The man had more pop sensibility in one of his nose hairs than all of the combined members of Kings of Leon could ever imagine having, and he never lost it. Listen to the opening track of Big Star's 2006 LP, In Space. It's called "Dony", and it's amazing. He still had it until the very end. I firmly believe that he had another epic album in there somewhere, he just needed the right set of circumstances to bring it out. I guess we'll never know.

Alex, you were a motherfucker from the beginning to the end. You had success when you were too young to handle it, couldn't find it when you were actually looking for it, and then you stopped giving a shit and just did whatever you felt. You were the embodiment of everything that was good about rock and roll, and you will be sorely missed. Your impressive musical legacy will live on forever. To paraphrase your disciple and my other hero Paul Westerberg, I'm in love with your song.

Monday, March 15, 2010

New Music Review

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Brutalist Bricks
Matador Records

I've spent the last week and a half or so listening to the latest Ted Leo effort, The Brutalist Bricks, amazed at how consistent Ted Leo is. I spent roughly the first half of my life obsessed with sports, so I've been trying to recall an athlete to whom I can make a parallel with ol' Teddy. The real "lunch pail" kind of guys. These guys are not super-stars, but they're the reliable players who you know will deliver when you need them to, even if it's done with little fanfare. Joe Dumars was the first player who came to mind. I grew up watching him let guys like Isiah Thomas have the spotlight, even though he was just as instrumental as Zeke in the Pistons back-to-back championships '89 and '90. Alan Trammell is another one: the Tigers' silent leader who kept his mouth shut and just showed up for work every day, earning the '84 World Series MVP award in the process. These were the first guys I could think of, having grown up as a fan of the Detroit teams, but every small to mid-market city had these guys. The unsung local hero who doesn't get the press. While I was racking my brain trying to think of a better example of these critical role players, I realized that I just couldn't come up with one to make a proper analogy. And then it dawned on me: I realized that it was because Ted Leo has so much fucking style, that he really IS a superstar. He just happens to be one in a role player's clothing.

The Brutalist Bricks is another enjoyable effort from Leo. It leads off with the infectious opener "The Mighty Sparrow", it closes with the hook-heavy arena-style rocker "Last Days" and everything in between will keep your full attention. This is classic Ted Leo here; he sticks to the things he's good at (angry-but-somehow-extremely-melodic-punk-influenced-pop if I were forced to label it), but he he switches it up enough that it just doesn't get old. He actually covers a tons of bases on this record. His punk roots shines through on the whole album, particularly on tracks such as "The Stick", "Where Was My Brain?", and "Gimme the Wire", and his folk influences sparkle particularly well on a pair of songs: "Even Heroes Have to Die", and the fabulous "Bottled in Cork". Lyrically, he's the same smart-ass he's always been, but a little older, a little wiser, and a little more clever.

This album, like his previous effort Living with the Living, seems to have more of a political bent to it than his earlier work (which is to say that it has 5 or 6 politically charged tracks instead of 1 or 2), but it seems so natural coming from his angry-young-man-approaching-middle-age persona that I don't see how even the most politically conservative indie rock fans could find it irksome. No, Ted has really given us a gem here. I think this is his best effort since 2003's Hearts of Oak. That's the only possible explanation for the fact that I just cannot stop listening to this thing.

Sure, Ted Leo is doing the same thing he's always done. His songs are predominantly I-IV-IV chord progressions with catchy hooks. That's a pretty standard formula employed by nearly every rocker since the 50's. But when Ted Leo puts his own spin on that tried and true formula is when he differentiates himself from the pack. This is why we give a shit about him now, and will continue to do so. Ted Leo is not an everyman like I originally though. He is a superstar. The problem is that not everybody knows that yet. Shit, maybe he doesn't even know it, but that doesn't make it untrue. He's had the game of a first ballot hall-of-famer since he started playing; he just doesn't get the media attention because indie-labels, even the prominent ones with decent distribution like Matador, are a far cry from Rock n' Roll's version of playing for the Yankees.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

New Music Review

Strange Boys
Be Brave
In the Red Records

The new release from Austin garage rockers The Strange Boys is something I've been anxious about hearing for quite some time. I've been looking forward to it with a bizarre mix of optimism and skepticism. You may recall this post in November, in which I detailed their curious lineup changes. Well now, the wait is over. Be Brave was released on CD on 3/2, and is slated for LP release on 3/16. I was tempted to hold off purchasing it until the record came out, but I just couldn't wait that long, so I went ahead and ahead and picked it up. And the initial verdict on the follow-up to the Strange Boys amazing debut ...and Girls Club? Well, to be honest, I was kind of disappointed.

But let's elaborate from there, shall we? Disappointment probably isn't a fair word to use. For one, nearly anything would seem disappointing in comparison to the Strange Boys first album. It's also worth pointing out that this one sounded a lot better on subsequent listenings. Overall, I guess it just wasn't what I was expecting. It sounds a lot more subdued than their debut, and that may have something to do with the fact that they no longer have their original drummer, Matt Hammer, who was a first class basher. There's nothing wrong with a mellow feel. In fact, there are a few fantastic tracks on this release. The titular track stands out the most. It's quite possibly the song of 2010 to this point. It's got a classic Strange Boys groove, and a saxophone solo by new band member Jenna Thornhill deWitt (ex-Mika Miko). Other highlights of the album include the opening track "I See" and "Night Might", both of which serve as reminders of why Strange Boys have been one of my favorite bands since the first time I heard them.

As for the songs that don't do all that much for me, I think I might be holding the band to an unfair standard. In some instances, it seems as though singer Ryan Sambol might be trying to bite off more than he can chew as a songwriter. Sometimes he makes attempts at being very poetic. Sometimes he succeeds, other times he doesn't. Even so, the songs that seem to have questionable lyrics, "Laugh at Sex, not Her" and "Da Da" are the first ones that come to mind, the musicianship is so much greater than other bands of the Garage genre that it doesn't really matter. I don't want to blast Sambol for taking chances.

All things considered, this is a pretty damn solid effort. There are a few great tracks, and a few not so great tracks, and all the stuff in the middle is pretty decent. Strange Boys...and Girls Club was my choice as the best album of 2009. Be Brave probably won't be my favorite of 2010, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it, per se. It just doesn't have as many standout tracks as the first one. It bears repeating that most records by most bands don't have as many standout tracks as that one did. So yeah, maybe I am a little disappointed by this record. But the real point that needs to be made here is the fact that I care enough about this band to be disappointed in the first place. This is a good record by a great band and you should buy it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


The Bottle Rockets
Smith's Olde Bar
Atlanta, GA

The Bottle Rockets are a band who I regret not getting into years ago. There's really no good reason why I never did; I just haven't. They've been touring at the 300-ish capacity venue level for years and years, they have strong ties to the Uncle Tupelo-Son Volt-Wilco family tree, and they have a heavy reputation as a great live band. I've been aware of them for some time, but until recently, if you'd asked me about them, I would just tell you that I'd heard they were good, and that Brian Henneman did a fantastic job playing the lead guitar part on Wilco's first album, A.M. Well, I picked up the vinyl copy of their latest release, Lean Forward, and that piqued my curiousity. The record is good, not great, but upon first listen, I had a feeling that they were a band who suffers from what I call The J. Geils Syndrome. What I mean by that is that they're a band who are so good live that it's impossible for even the best producer to capture the energy of their live show in the studio. (For further listening, check out the first two live J. Geils records, Full House, and Blow Your Face Out, and you'll see what I'm talking about.)

Well, I finally got to check these fellas out, and my suspicions were confirmed. The Bottle Rockets did nothing short of rock my face off. They epitomized what a 2-guitar band is supposed to be, with twin lead parts, harmonizing parts, and a good bit of weaving between Henneman and John Horton. They tore through a set of classic songs, all of which sound much better when played live, with a level of intensity that most bands simply are not capable of producing. To describe it in the best way I know how, I felt like I watched a band play an entire set where every was rocked out extra hard like it was an encore. Yes, that's it. The Bottle Rockets live performance is like a 60 minute encore. Drummer Mark Ortmann and bassist Keith Voegele deserves a lot of the credit for this, of course, because you can't pull this kind of feel off without a stellar rhythm section. These guys have the country/rock/boogie style down to a T, and this was one of the best shows I've seen in quite some time.

I'd like to continue to describe what I saw for you, but it's really hard to do for those who weren't there, and I'm afraid I would fall short. If the band can't reproduce their amazing live sound on record, how can I do it justice with mere words? You'd be wise to pick up some Bottle Rockets records, but you'd be even wiser to go and catch them live. These guys are real pros, and I can't wait to see them come back to town.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Back with a Vengence!

Ok, I'm back, but not really with a vengeance. My sincerest apologies for the long delay, but I've been uber busy. Work has been insane, I'm in the process of taking the GRE and applying to grad school, I'm trying to refinance my house, and as if that's not enough, I've had a good bit of personal turmoil to deal with. Aside from all of that, I just haven't been buying records or going to shows in the last couple of months, so I haven't had anything to write about. Not until now anyways. Last Saturday, I made it out to the Tara theater to see the much hyped film Crazy Heart.

As to the quality of the movie itself, I don't want to touch on that too much. I've said it before: this whole thing is about music, not movies. I am a music critic, not a movie critic. Suffice it to say that it was a good film, but it didn't quite live up to the overwhelming amount of hype. Jeff Bridges was great as the washed up legend Bad Blake, but overall, the film just felt like the same story as The Wrestler retold in a different context. Colin Farrell was surprisingly good as a semi-douchey mainstream Country star, and Robert Duvall turned in a solid performance as Blake's bartender compadre. Maggie Gyllenhall's performance wasn't bad, per se, but her character was poorly written and underdeveloped, and I didn't buy her as the love interest.

I'm here to talk about the music in the film, which is pretty damned good. The original songs, the bulk of which were composed primarily by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, are believable as classic standards that a grizzled old country vet could have penned decades before, and they're ably performed by Bridges and in a couple instances, Farrell. Where they really did a good job, however, was in the selection of non-original music. The Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens and Lightnin' Hopkins were all represented, and even though I'm not a big proponent of his, a Townes Van Zandt song was included, and it was somehow just right. The best placement of all, however, was the usage of Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" at a critical juncture of the film. That's one of the great 'middle-finger-to-the-glossy-Nashville-establishment' country songs of all time, and using it at the point where Blake turns it around and starts making his commercial comeback is perfect, being that his character was essentially a fictional amalgam of Waylon, Haggard, and Kristofferson, because they were all 'middle-finger-to-the-glossy-Nashville-establishment' guys. It's just too bad they didn't have Son Volt record their own version of it for the film.

The other thing I want to touch on is the gear talk within the film. I find it rare that this happens, but that's one thing they really seemed to get right. For one, I love that they made Bad Blake a Gretsch player. I myself am a Telecaster guy, but putting a Country Gentleman in Bridges' hands somehow made him more believable and unique, because most of the guys his character was based on are Telecaster guys. That gave him a certain quality that made him way more interesting and realistic than any of the characters in Velvet Goldmine, to name one example. There's also a great scene in which he argues with a sound guy over the quality of the sound mix. There really needs to be a scene like this in every film about music performance, because it happens all the time. The only mistake I think I spotted from a tehcnical standpoint was that Blake tells this sound engineer that he has a Fender Tremolux amp (which the sound guy says he can mic directly into the PA, a very nice, subtle, and believable technical exchange), and I'm pretty sure it was a Bassman, or some other Fender combo amp with a 4x10 cabinet. Yes, I'm a nerd. I'm okay with it, you should be too.

So there you have it. Crazy Heart is a very entertaining, if not great all-around, film with another fine performance by Jeff Bridges. I would recommend it for the music more than anything else, but it's worth going to see in the theaters. Other than that, there are some new records coming out soon that I can't wait to get my hands on, so expect to see me posting with some regularity again. I'm going to see The Bottle Rockets at Smith's Olde Bar on Friday, so expect a write-up about that soon. I can't wait to see what the boys from Festus, MO have in store. Their latest record, Lean Forward, is another solid effort, and I'm looking forward to seeing these guys play live for the first time. Cheers.

P.S. - Here's a fun fact about Crazy Heart sountrack. The first track on it, "Hold on You", was co-written by Bob Neuwirth. That's a name I hadn't heard in quite some time, but he was the ultimate hang-out guy in the 60's and 70's. If you ever saw D.A. Pennebaker's Dylan Rockumentary Don't Look Back, Neuwirth was Dylan's partner-in-crime and co-conspirator throughout the whole thing. He also palled around with Jim Morrison for quite some time, too. He was mentioned many times in something I read about Morrison: probably Danny Sugerman's No One Here Gets Out Alive, but don't quote me on that. I apologize for considering myself as being above making "bromance" jokes, because they probably would have fit like a glove in this paragraph.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


'Tis the season for giving...to myself. I've been super busy these days, but i was able to make it out the other afternoon to do a little record shopping for myself. I didn't overdo it, surprisingly, but I did make it away with a pretty good haul.

Singles Going Steady
4 Men with Beards (re-issue)

This is another one of those that I'm kind of ashamed to admit that I don't already own on vinyl. Regardless, I've remedied that situation, and have been listening to this one a lot. Gotta love the Buzzcocks. I sometimes wonder how successful they could have been in the U.S. given the proper push. The musicianship isn't quite on par with that of the Clash, but it's not all that far off, and I would put their pop sensibility up against just about everyone else. I definitely think they're the greatest thing to ever come out of Manchester.

Desolation Boulevard
RCA Records (U.S. Release)

Of all the studio albums by Sweet, this is definitely the one to own. This is the first record they made after they decided to shed the teeny-bopper image, although this is still about a year or so before they started writing their own stuff. Granted, a lot of their glossy stuff is pretty fun, too ("Little Willie" and "Wig Wam Bam" come to mind), but the real heavy hitters are on this one ("Ballroom Blitz" and "Fox on the Run"). The deep cuts on here are solid, too. I particularly like "A.C.D.C." and "The Six Teens".

Nonesuch Records (re-issue)

This is definitely my favorite Wilco record, although YHF is not far behind. I like this one the best because it reminds me the most of Big Star. It sounds really nice on the 180 gram vinyl, and it includes a CD version, as well. Done and done. I'll probably have to get my hands on the re-issues of A.M. and Being There pretty soon, too.