The Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

It’s odd to me that, for a band I like as much as the Lips, I can’t seem to review any of their albums. I adore “The Soft Bulletin;” it’s just that I don’t understand it. When I try to review “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” or “Clouds Taste Metallic,” I keep thinking “duh, of course I like this album, it’s 90’s noise-rock with existential themes. It’s like it was written for me to give it a good review.” So I end up reviewing Yoshimi. It’s not my favorite, but it’s up there and it’s structured in a way that’s conducive to the way I write reviews.r-196557-1296067961-jpeg

It’s a fairly popular opinion that the Flaming Lips are the modern-day successors to Pink Floyd. Whether or not there’s any substance to this claim, I recognize a fairly similar arc to their respective careers. First, they built up a cult following in the underground scene, then they burst onto the mainstream and survived there for a number of massively acclaimed albums, slowly petering out artistically as they replaced originality with artifice and tried to please the crowds.

Yes, I hate most of the songs on “The Wall” and literally everything after it, and no, I will not apologize for this shocking opinion. It represents the exact moment at which classic Floyd became a non-entity, as Roger Waters gained full creative control while destroying his friendship with Dave Gilmour–in fact, the latter happened while they were working on “Comfortably Numb,” by some accounts. While nothing this dramatic appears in the annals of the Lips, it would seem to me, at least, that they also entered a slow decline after going mainstream, putting their punk roots further and further behind them and trying to capitalize on the sound that made them big.

If the Lips are Floyd, then it can be tempting to see Yoshimi as “The Wall.” They’re both concept albums (“The Wall” more so) and to me, at least, they marked the beginning of their respective bands’ declining periods. Nothing but a few individual tracks after Yoshimi ever satisfied me, and nothing after “The Wall” was even listenable to me.

But perhaps a more apt analogy is that Yoshimi is like “Wish You Were Here.” Yoshimi is a simpler and less ambitious concept album than “The Wall,” far more on the level of “Wish You Were Here.” There is the added parallel, in my mind, that both are the last good album by their respective band. (Yeah, you Animals lovers out there, I’m gonna piss you off too. Sorry!)

So it’s fitting that both the albums we’re comparing would harp on the central themes of the band as a whole. In the case of Pink Floyd, we have a lament for early Floyd frontman Sid Barret, whose descent into madness preoccupied Waters for several years and several albums. In the case of the Lips, we have this theme of heroic struggle against the challenges of life, a theme which began early in the Lip’s discography and became even more predominant in albums after Yoshimi.

Yoshimi opens strong with “Fight Test,” a song which got them sued by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) for plagiarizing the melody and chords to “Father and Son.” Some have seen the song as an ironic response to the original, but when questioned, frontman Wayne Coyne seemed to say it was more a matter of simply liking the melody and using it. I don’t know, it’s been a while since I read that interview. I have a hard time with the ironic response idea.

Musically, it’s a good song. Say what you will about the ethics of plagiarism, good ingredients make a good cake. Lyrically, it seems to be written from the point of view of a young man trying to prove his superiority over his ex’s new boyfriend by refusing to confront him, convinced that she will vindicate him by returning. It’s essentially a look at pacifism, which should tell you right now how the rest of the album is going to be. Supposedly, this song and the next three form a loose story, which is why I call this a loose concept album. I’ll admit, though, that I don’t know how to square the disparate parts of this story into a cohesive whole. 8/10 minus two points for plagiarizing the classics, giving a serviceable 6/10.

Next is “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” a ballad about a robot learning human emotions, falling in love and trying to comfort the object of its affections, who is “sad.” You know, I’ve previously gone on record as saying I identify hard with the song “Sci-Fi Kid” by Blitzen Trapper, so it might not be surprising that I find this sentimental little ballad touching. The music is nice, a kind of dreampop or modernized prog-rock with analog instruments blended freely with synthesizers. 6/10, after I deduct points for trying to tug my heartstrings.

Then comes the two-part title track, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1/Part 2” Part 1 is an uptempo ballad about a girl named Yoshimi, a martial artist who works “for the city.” The singer begs her to defend him from pink robots. Now, some see this as a metaphor for a girl dying of cancer (though reports that it’s about an actual cancer patient that the band knew are apocryphal), and in fact this is partially the angle that the musical based on the album runs with. However, the musical was written ten years later by writers outside the band, so I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything or not. Notable is that the band knew an actual Yoshimi, the drummer for a Japanese band of their acquaintance, the Boredoms.

Since I don’t really interpret it as the cancer thing, I’m left to either take it at face value or try to analyze it further. One could say that Yoshimi herself personifies striving in the face of the absurdity of life, which is definitely a major topic on the album,  but that might be belaboring the point a little. At any rate, part one is pretty great. 7.5/10

In fact, on the second part, a wordless semi-instrumental, Yoshimi P-We does provide screaming and howling vocal sounds against the back drop of a musical chaos presumably representing Yoshimi’s showdown with the Pink Robots. The urban legend goes that these are the screams of a dying cancer patient, which is, again, totally apocryphal as far as I can tell. It’s harsh and not terribly easy to listen to, but it does remind me of Earthbound battle music, so 5/10?

Now, in these four tracks, treating them all as narrative material like many listeners do, we have multiple romantic entanglements, a good robot, bad robots, and anywhere from three to seven characters, depending on what individuals are the same people between songs. If this were a rock opera, it’d be a fairly convoluted one, but as a concept album I can cut it a little slack. A concept album doesn’t even necessarily have to have a coherent plot, just enough suggestion of one for the listener to fill in. Still, even for a concept album, the narrative is vague, if it exists at all.

Next comes “In the Morning of the Magicians,” named after a once-famous French book of speculation on the occult. I find the title oddly compelling, if ultimately non-indicative. As far as I can tell, this song is about waking up in the morning and realizing that your moral code is arbitrary and unexamined. To some people, an alienating premise, but then again, this is what this band is about. The music is reminiscent of One More Robot, only even dreamier and with less of an edge. I like it on that level, and I appreciate that it begins to ask some hard questions, though it fields not even a tentative answer. 6/10.

“Ego-Tripping at the Gates of Hell” is a brief ballad about being so wrapped up in yourself that a meaningful moment slips away without you noticing it. I can rave to that. More of us have been there than we like to admit. Musically, though, it blends into the previous track and doesn’t really break an inch of new ground. 5/10.

“Are You a Hypnotist?” is a harder-rocking song, which is probably timely given the two tracks before it. In a hard-building, musically intense chorus, the singer, feeling betrayed, demands of his lover “are you some kind of hypnotist?” It has the same kind of feeling of manipulation and betrayal as one of my old favorite songs, Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky,” but I grow wary of giving songs good ratings just because I relate to them. Objectively, though, it has a great chorus. 6/10.

For some reason, I forget that “It’s Summertime” exists. It’s sweet and encouraging, but obviously filler and apparently unmemorable. 4/10.

“Do You Realize” is probably the best song on the album lyrically. Some might accuse it of being the “deep” ramblings of a stoner, but that’s doing the song (and probably some stoners) a bit of a disservice. This is a song about breaking down the illusions of everyday life, from the idea that the sun moves and the Earth is stationary, to the idea that we’ll always have enough time to say goodbye to everyone before they inevitably die. “Instead of saying all of your goodbyes,” the singer advises, “let them know you realize that life goes fast/it’s hard to make the good things last.” By phrasing the verses as questions, Coyne invites the listener to examine our own misconceptions.

Musically, it’s every bit as good, with a steady rhythm but a dreamy melody that might have influenced “Space Song” by Beach House. 8.5/10, because any higher would just be gushing.

I dunno, something about “All We Have Is Now” is a little too Radiohead for me. It’s the way the vocals are processed. On the surface, it’s a sci-fi piece about meeting your future self and learning of your own impending death. On another level, I guess it’s just about seizing the moment. But the album didn’t really need another philosophical song. 5/10.

The finale is a cool space-rock instrumental with a jazzy edge, “Approaching Mons Pavonis by Balloon (Utopia Planitia).” It’s filler but it’s also spacey. I’m torn. 6/10, I guess.

Conclusion:

So while I wish this album had a little less filler and a little more variety, and while I wish that it had gone somewhere with the narrative elements, I like enough of the individual songs for it to be alright. I like this album all the more because it’s the last one where the band had an ounce of musical subtlety, and the last one where they even tried to be subtle about their weird philosophy of absurdist optimism or whatever. I mean, hell, the next album has a song called “The Will Always Negates Defeat (The W.A.N.D.),” and it goes on like that. Ultimately, it’s a solid late offering from a good band fallen on hard times. It never really soars, but it doesn’t have any real let-downs either.

Whole album average: 5.96 rounded to 6.0/10

Best song: “Do You Realize?”

Most mediocre song: “It’s Summertime”


All views and opinions mine, all content reviewed the property of its respective owners. Mayans were astronauts.
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Blitzen Trapper — Furr (2008)

Here we are with another one of my favorite albums, an album that has peaked at my personal number one and never dropped below number ten. In a better world (and you know I love to think about better worlds), this album would be as iconic as the White Album. In fact, I’d like to think we’d all call it “the Plywood Album.”

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The Plywood Album

Blitzen Trapper, for those just tuning in, are an alt-rock band from Portland, Oregon. Now, for some of you, the combination of “alt” and “Portland” conjures ghastly images: stoned retro-hippies singing about weed; irritatingly precious hipsters in old-fashioned painter’s uniforms singing about how they still like 60s music; violent anarcho-punks being anarcho-punks… and so on.

Forget that. These six men*, for a shining period of three or four albums, were the rockstars’ rockstars. They had fantastic, undefinable music ranging from alt-country and bluegrass to crashing post-rock soundscapes, lyrics that nodded to the Grateful Dead or to Bob Dylan sometimes, but more often soared through imagined worlds even Rush and Yes never made landfall in, and they had old-school, likeable stage presence too. Frontman Eric Earley and multi-instrumentalist/singer Marty Marquis’ salt-of-the-earth working-man personas never felt forced, and did a lot to endear them to me. If they lost their way a little on the last two or three albums, I can forgive them because of my liking for them as a group, and for that three-album window starting with “Wild Mountain Nation” and ending with “Destroyer of the Void.” Hell, I even like individual songs from well before and after that period.

(*later five, after the departure of keyboardist Drew Laughery.)

In short, I love this band, enough that I would apply to be one of their roadies if I found myself unemployed and in Portland. They are one of the very few nationally known acts I’ve ever seen live, together with Sarah Jarosz, the Dave Rawlings Machine, and a handful of B-list in my three-and-a-half hours at Woodstock ’99. I even drove six hours to Atlanta to see them in ’16, even knowing that I didn’t like half the new material they’d be playing. It was on that drive, by the way, that I learned how Paul Simon felt on his drive through America with his young son to see Graceland, and it was on that drive that my son and I came to be rabid fans of the Avett Brothers, but that’s a different story.

I previously reviewed their coming-of-age album, “Wild Mountain Nation,” a little while ago, heaping praise on some songs while criticizing those that couldn’t decide on a genre or that went too far into post-rock experimentalism, concluding that the album was good but quite uneven.

Now we come to their next album, almost certainly their best-seller and best-received album and certainly their closest flirtation with mainstream success, Furr. It’s an album that never coalesces into a single genre, but in a way, it doesn’t have to, sustaining an even tone across thirteen wildly different songs in a way “Wild Mountain Nation” completely failed to.

The album opens with the blaring, Al Kooper-esque organ chords of “Sleepytime in the Western World.” Now, I’ll admit I can’t make out what this song is about. But it sure sounds nice, with a retro pop texture and very interesting lyrics that could be about a head trip, a bad dream or even sleep-walking. I can’t tell. I have to admit it’s not likely to win the band any fans right off the bat, but it’s top-notch b-side material, the kind of song I’d regularly use as filler if I DJ’d a college radio station. 6/10

“Gold for Bread” is just as psychedelic and even more cryptic, apparently the paranoid but somehow upbeat ramblings of a psychotic man on the run from the law. It might turn somebody on to the band, if only by its groovy semi-acoustic sound. It’s always been a little too similar to the preceding song for my taste, and honestly it would be more at home on “Wild Mountain Nation.” Again, I’d play it on air. 5/10

And then comes the title track, Furr, which certainly made me a fan of the band at first or second listen. The song opens with airy acoustic rhythm guitar that sounds like Dylan’s, but the lyrics are sung with a triple-time lilt peculiar to a lot of Eric Earley’s writing. It’s a ballad about a young man who runs off into the woods and gets magically transformed into a wolf, only to find his way back to humanity when he meets a beautiful girl.

Yeah, it’s Brothers Grimm material, but it’s also a sensitive treatment of young people living a wild lifestyle in order to find themselves before settling down. The effortless semi-nonsense mysticism of the chorus could have been handled badly, but somehow it works perfectly. The song as a whole is touching without being sentimental, and the acoustic guitar and tambourine formula somehow doesn’t grate. I’m not in love with the sampled wildlife sounds, but on the other hand, they’re not really hurting anything. Anyways, adding birdsong and forest sounds is a total ’60’s-era Pink Floyd move, so I don’t hate it. 8/10.

God and Suicide” is an extremely brief number, with semi-nonsensical lyrics that seem to be about trying not to choose between religion and a worldly life. It has that kind of morbid, dark spirituality that I absolutely love in old blues and country songs, plus an  “Heat of Gold”-esque backbeat. Considering that it’s clearly filler, I rather like it. 6/10.

Next is a song about the apocalypse and one of the album’s hardest and most psychedelic rockers, “Fire and Fast Bullets.” While far from my favorite deep cut on the album, I like it specifically because it marks the point at which Blitzen Trapper found the perfect balance between traditional hard rock and Sonic Youth-esque lo-fi experimentalism. The middle section with distorted vocals is perfect in my opinion, as is the line “to sit on upholstery and burning arise/as the fire starts falling and the fast bullets fly.” It’s also great live. 8/10.

Next is a brief, funky dance number driven by piano and electric piano, Saturday Nite [sic]. It sticks out of the album like a sore thumb, but somehow it works as a moment to catch your breath between two dark songs. I also love the synth solo. 5/10

Possibly one of their best known songs, “Black River Killer” is a folky, mostly-acoustic murder ballad sung from the perspective of a serial killer. That morbid religious tone I mentioned earlier is back in spades, with lines in the chorus like “oh, when, oh, when will the spirit come a-calling for my soul to send/oh, when, oh, when will the keys of the kingdom be mine again?” Honestly, if I had to pick my favorite song sung from the perspective of a serial killer, I’d find it hard to choose between this song and the acoustic version of “Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads. The retro synth hook over bare finger-picked acoustic guitar is a piece of instrumental flair that only Blitzen Trapper could have written. 8/10

And next, Frontman Eric Earley decides to imitate one of his top idols, Neil Young. Not cool outlaw proto-grunge-singer Neil Young from the late 70’s, or the bizarre synth-savvy tech genius Neil Young of the early 80’s, nor yet green activist Neil Young from the 90’s and 00’s, but rather the Neil Young of 1969’s “After the Gold Rush,” the dorky,  creaky-voiced Neil Young who played piano more than guitar and sung about silver spaceships.

The result, stripped-down ballad “Not Your Lover Anymore,” is a song with a simple message: “In my sleep I’m not your lover anymore/when I’m dreaming I could be anyone.” It’s not a breakup song, and it even tries to convince itself it’s not a breakup song. Nevertheless, it sounds like an overture to a breakup or a veiled confession of infidelity–the singer is hers when he’s awake, but in his subconscious, he’s moved on or worse, he never knew her. Somehow the bald imitation of Neil Young’s sound is fitting, as the song reads as a layered piece of falsehood. And like no other Blitzen Trapper song, it has the world-weariness of a Neil Young song. It’s not a bad song. 6/10.

Next, in one of the biggest genre leaps in recording history, comes a sludgy, doomy post-rock song called “Love U,” which begins with Earley shouting “I love you, baby, like a thief loves money,” and gets stranger from there. I have no idea what it’s about, but somehow, it maintains the continuity of the album, even with the vastly different song immediately before it.

It’s the worldview, I think. Eric Earley seems to see the world in different colors, as though he knew that we live in an older and stranger world than most of us ever know. Sometimes I’m driving down a certain section of a Mississippi state highway, and I see the grandeur of a long stretch of timberland that has, within my son’s lifetime, reclaimed the name “forest” and then earned the name “jungle” in one steady motion, slower than the moon, and then, especially if it’s summer and the sun is beating down like a constant Hindustani drone, then I know that man is young and that much is unknown. At these moments, I think I could or rather would write like Eric Earley and Marty Marquis (who seems to be his regular writing partner), though this is a massive overestimation of my abilities. It is this desire for true sight that made me a photographer, and more to the point, it is the ability of music to change my view of the world that has made me a musician and an obsessive music lover.

In “Love U,” and throughout the album, Earley employs these little turns of phrase, some of them hinting at religion and some of them hinting at mysticism, that tell us we’re no longer in the nine-to-five, matter-of-fact human world, and in fact, make us feel that that world is merely comfortable ignorance. “God speed us home with fire and storm,” from “Love U,” sounds to me like a vague allusion to the columns of fire and cloud that led the Hebrews on in the book of Exodus, but more than that, it evokes the elemental forces of the world in this pseudo-religious way. It reminds us, or me, at least, that we do not fully understand fires or storms, and are barely capable of controlling the former, let alone the latter, being but children in an old world. It’s the same with the line about “the ancient, distant flow” in the title track.

And so, while hardly my standout track from the album, “Love U” introduces us to the last few songs on the album, marking the point at which we have firmly left the human world behind and returned to a more primal world. 7/10.

“War on Machines” is next, a throwback to “Wild Mountain Nation“‘s sound, to be sure, but quite at home on the album. It’s a hard, bass driven rocker. The lyrics are as cryptic as ever, but it sounds like it’s about going home in the evening to your girl, ready for love. Do note that, when rock and roll was invented in 1936 by three old blues singers passing through my city on their way to Gulfport, in a makeshift studio in a skanky hotel we’ve since demolished, it was already about that.

Here, Blitzen Trapper take this age-old trope out on the porch and beat the dust off of it real good, with lyrics that are good from beginning to end. The singer compares himself and his lover to tigers, calls the world a dry riverbed waiting to flood, and talks about the night “breaking out like a fight.” There isn’t a line here I don’t like, and the music sounds as primal and natural as the lyrics, like a threesome between Morphine, the Allman Brothers and the Sonic Youth. 9/10

Next, without breaking the tone or the flow, Blitzen Trapper play perhaps the nearest thing to a straight country song in their repertoire (a repertoire which includes a whole country album), with “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle.” It’s a slow, fingerpicked song with a lot of acoustic guitar and pedal steel, and it is about another of Eric Earley’s favorite subjects, a fugitive from the law, traveling in the wilderness. It begins, like “Ramble On” and like the Namarië, by announcing that it’s autumn, with the line “the weather’s like feathers on fire,” a line which took  me several years to analyze: I’ve weighed several interpretations and I conclude it means falling leaves in those fiery colors particular to only a handful of deciduous trees.

I don’t have much to say about this song, other than to say that if songs like Furr and “War on Machines” sketched in little corners of the primal world, “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle” stood in front of the canvas with brushes in its teeth and a wet palette and gave it colors, such colors. I compare the experience to that of watching Bob Ross paint an Alaskan mountainscape. 9/10.

The second-to-last song on the album, the three-part “Echo–Always On–EZ Con” is another piano-driven ballad and definitely a breakup song, perhaps a sort of coda to “Not Your Lover.” The singer laments losing touch with his ex, asking if all their love was is “an echo out in space.” This goes on for two verses and then the song breaks down into a strange, atonal soundscape known as “Always On,” before resurrecting after about ten seconds of that as “EZ Con,” a funky, straightforward instrumental jam where the band as a whole unwinds and lets loose the remaining musical tensions, as the final song is to be nearly a solo number on Earley’s part, with some help from Marquis.

“Lady on the Water” is the preeminent example of another odd facet of Eric Earley’s songwriting: his true love songs (at least, before he stopped trying) were always to a woman of almost mythical qualities, a woman that the singer wants to learn from or be blessed by. This peculiarity in his songwriting was apparent from the song on “Wild Mountain Nation” where Earley sang “Girl, I love your amazing ways/keep me honest, keep me clean,” and became even more clear in another song from the same album, where he sang “Baby’s got to praise like a river on the cusp/crashing through the levee, moving with a mighty rush.” It’s obvious here.

It’s a song that manages to be jangly and fingerpicked at the same time, with basically two instruments: guitar and melodica. (There is some low-key synth glow as well, I think.) In some of his more Dylanesque writing, Earley begs his lover for guidance, for mystical blessings, and for her faithfulness until the end of his natural life. One almost gets the impression that this period is to be a blink of an eye for her. Should Aragorn have written a love song to Arwen, I think it would have sounded much like this. 8/10.

Conclusion:

I’ve done a dangerous thing here, reviewing an album that I have very few criticisms of. Obviously, I’m biased in favor of this album. Giving a whole-album numerical rating seems a little silly. Consider this painfully gushing review as a necessary installment of an ongoing series, as I document the rise and fall of Blitzen Trapper.

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Here they are, by the way, less one member, unfortunately. L-R: Michael Van Pelt (bass), Marty Marquis (multi-instrumentalist, vocals), Eric Earley (guitar, keyboard, lead vocals), Brian Koch (drums), Erik Menteer (guitar)


All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners, all opinions mine, all images claimed under fair use.

U2 — War (1982)

U2 were a mighty force in the 80’s and 90’s, a hugely acclaimed band that earned both their hordes of fans and their hordes of detractors. At their height, they were great musicians who made a totally different type of rock music, but their initial lack of self-awareness, inability to cope gracefully with fame, and Bono’s massive ego all got them a huge amount of ridicule in the 90’s. Did they deserve it? Probably not, but they didn’t do much to avoid it.

Image result for war album coverSo it was very impressive that they managed to thoroughly turn their situation around in the late 90’s and stay a bankable (if often-despised) act into the present era. But to understand them beyond the surface detail, to understand who they are beyond “awkwardly Christian pop stars,” you have to start early.

U2 are Irish, and grew up in Dublin during “The Troubles.” We think of the British Isles as being a major center of civilization, but Northern Ireland (part of the UK) was a country torn by guerilla warfare, and Dublin, while located in the calmer, safer Republic of Ireland (not part of the UK), isn’t all that far from the northern border. We can see some of the same earmarks in U2’s music as we see in art and literature from any turmoil-filled region: a kind of intense earnestness that comes from growing up un-sheltered from the problems of the real world, and a keen-eyed concern for the human condition that doesn’t come easily to people living in quiet parts, far from the border. I compare it to music that came out of Africa at about the same time.

Now, (and this is a theme I touch on more in my next review) the 80’s were a time when we began to feel the Global Village was very small indeed, and in which artists like U2 felt like the voices of the age. The best music from this time usually has world influences, and often harps on themes of travel and global communications in ways that are foreign to us: after all, we’ve had the internet for decades now, and safe intercontinental air travel for longer still. It’s easy to forget that long-distance calls used to cost real money, and it’s almost as easy to forget how big and forbidding the world used to feel.

And U2 came of age in this awe-inspiring environment. U2’s first two albums have a great sound, but they’re frankly immature, as a band’s first two albums routinely will be. Their third is in no uncertain terms one of the great albums of the early 80’s, and it marks the point at which they began making money. It’s titled “War,” since, in the words of Bono, “War seemed to be the motif for 1982 [when the album was recorded].”

He’s no doubt thinking of the First Lebanon War, a conflict between Lebanon and Israel still felt to this day in the Middle-East, and probably of the conflict in the Falklands as well, a short war Britain fought with Argentina over islands in the South Atlantic. And the album shows that, when Bono thinks about war, he also thinks about what war does to the populace and about the human condition in general.

The first song is about the Troubles. “It is not a rebel song,” Bono says whenever he sings it live, “this song is ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.'” Bloody Sunday was an incident on 30th January, 1972 when unarmed Northern Irish peaceful protestors were fired upon by the British Army. Two were run over with Army vehicles, as well, for a total of 14 dead and at least 14 more wounded. The effect of this on the Irish and Northern Irish psyche must have been massive. To even have an idea of what this is like, I can only compare it to the various killings in my native American South during the Civil Rights Movement, including another day called “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, 1965. Even then, it’s too removed from my own life for me to really get how open the wounds must have been at one time. Bono’s writing only ten years after the fact, so when he’s passionate on this song, I believe him.

And it’s a great song. Bono isn’t just singing about one massacre, but about every massacre and bloodbath ever and one in particular. This feat is something few could pull off without sounding trite. The band sound huge, with Larry Mullen especially hitting hard on his drums, which are unfortunately poorly recorded. I actually brought this up in my review of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” as an example of everything that was wrong with 80’s production styles. The drums on this album couldn’t have been recorded in any time but the early 80’s.

In fact, practically no one seemed to be able to record and mix drums right in that decade, which is especially idiotic since they really got the drums right with great frequency in the 60’s and 70’s. Listen to the drums on 1969’s “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones. They sound huge, and you’d think they’d be a giant, custom kit, right? No, it’s a tiny portable kit set up in a hotel room, but mic’d up and mixed properly. Now listen to the drum intro on “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Mullen is a great drummer, and he’s playing a nice kit, but due to the godawful micing and processing, it sounds like he’s the one banging on toy traps.

The second song, Seconds, is Bono voicing anxieties about terrorism, nukes, and war in general. “In an apartment on Times Square/You can assemble them anywhere,” he says, speaking, probably of a small atom bomb that could be built anywhere and set off in an instant. Terrorism became a real thing in the U.S. consciousness in 2001, but Bono has seen terrorism on his home soil within his lifetime, so it might sound more prescient to me than it really was at the time. But the sense of dread in this song is universally understandable, and I have to commend him for that.

Ironically enough, there’s an actual plastic toy drum banging away on this song, and it doesn’t sound much worse than the other drums. As dumb as the drums sound, the band is ahead of its time here in other ways: they interject a lo-fi sample of children singing an Airborne Rangers cadence as the song’s bridge, in what sounds like a very 90’s or 00’s alt-rock move. Overall, the album has started strong and continued strong, despite trashy polythene-sounding production.

Next comes the piano-driven “New Year’s Day,” U2’s first hit in the U.K. It’s about love and separation in a time of unrest, I think. It’s nicely arranged, and the simple chorus, which goes “I will be with you again,” captures a very believable yearning.

Larry Mullen sure shows off a lot on this album, doesn’t he? The next song, “Like a Song,” begins with the elemental sound of him beating out quarter notes on his snare drum, the percussion equivalent of the “Purple Haze” intro. It’s not even that badly mic’d; It’s definitely the only song I can really enjoy the drumming on. The song is musically on par with “New Year’s Day” as one of the best songs on the album, but the lyrics are likely to be divisive.

Yes, “Like a Song” is representative of a stage many Christian songwriters (and songwriters who happen to be Christians) have in their development, in which they rail at the failings of the Christian Church at large. Perhaps it’s division among believers or the realization that the organized religion fails to help the poor and needy as much as it could (and in Bono’s case here, it’s both), but whatever the subject, it’s a little like the religious equivalent of Bob Dylan’s protest-song phase.

And listen: I love “Chimes of Freedom” and “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Protest songs can work, but it’s hard to do. For that matter, how well does Bono pull it off? I would say decently well–the song has some great lines–but it’s at moments like “Like a Song” that I realize exactly why U2 and Bono personally are as deeply divisive as they are.

It comes down to this: if you’re not religious, the singer railing against his own religion looks stupid. Why wouldn’t you just get a new religion or become an atheist? Furthermore, in our society, we’re all too conscious that division within a religion is how many bloody holy wars have started.

On the other hand, if you’re religious, you might understand Bono’s desire for his religion to be all it could be, and you might even relate. From such a perspective the song stands well as an indictment of religious partizanism and hypocrisy. If you disagree, well, I must say I can see your side of it clearly as well.

And that’s the paradox of Paul “Bono” Hewson. At his prime, he was a man with something of an ego, and he was wrestling with ideas of Christian humility; he was a man obsessed with righteousness and wracked with a sense of moral guilt, and moreover, he tried to write rock and roll about religion.

The name “rock and roll” refers to sex, by the way. It’s an old sailing term for a ship riding choppy sea, and it’s also meant “having sex” from probably about the time it was coined. That’s sailors for you. And the name stuck to the genre because, for one thing, the name’s catchy as hell, with strong alliteration and assonance, and for another, because rock music has always looked at life from the angle of sex and romance. It turns out that most human activities can be used as metaphors for sex, and that as a passionate act of (potential) creation, sex makes a great metaphor for art, work, and human striving in general. This, I would argue, is latent in all the great rock music, from the first blues men to add a back-beat to their music, right up to artists working in the present day.

To sum up a very complex genre in a few words, rock speaks about life in the language of sexual passion. So if you’re a member of a religion where the common doctrine is that sex is supposed to be a sacred thing that’s not talked about and should (theoretically) only happen between married people, it’s possible that rock is not your genre of choice. But Bono makes it work, aware that sexual passion often looks and sounds like religious passion, and vice versa. Honestly, I liked him better when he was wracked with guilt and anxiety about his morals. When he changed and became superficially more palatable to general audiences, the music suffered. We’ll get to that in another review.

Where was I? Do let me know in the comments if I rant just entirely too much.

“Drowning Man,” that’s next. It has a very different sound from the rest of the album, with a guest musician playing the electric violin, and Bono and “the Edge” Evans playing interlocking acoustic rhythm. Later, Bono only played guitar when he was lost in his “rock-star” persona, which was more like a Christian-high-school student’s idea of what a rock-star would look like. I feel embarrassed for Bono when I remember him strutting around and trying to scratch out the chords for “Watchtower” only a few years later.

Here in the studio, however, he has no one to impress and he’s had time to learn the chords. Meanwhile, the Edge does what he does best, which is create a musical soundscape. And what a soundscape it is! When I say soundscape, some of you think of a late-80’s/early-90’s noise-rock band of your choosing, and outside this context, that’s what I think of when I say or hear it too. If you’ve followed my blog, you even know what band I’m thinking of right now. But I mean something different when I say “soundscape” here, and wish I had a different word for what the Edge does. To be honest, this song sounds nothing like what I define as “rock and roll,” with vaguely Flamenco strumming patterns interlocking to form a ringing, shimmering texture that is somehow less choppy and more flowing than the sum of its parts. If I think of a cityscape rising through the smog when I hear the sludged-out guitars in “Teenage Riot,” then I hear high, crashing surf when I listen to the guitars and violin in this song. That seems appropriate, given the title.

I have no idea what the song’s angle is. Some people have thought it was a religious song about God speaking to his people or something like that: it wouldn’t be the first or the last time with Bono, and he does quote scripture in this song. Honestly, though, it could just as easily be a passionate love song to someone you’re traveling a great distance to see. Which, if you get into Christian theology, still doesn’t preclude the first theory. You see what I mean, though, when I said that religious passion can sound like sexual or romantic passion?

Anyways, the lyrics are a little generic despite allusions to Isaiah and a cryptic title, this is a beautifully arranged little number. I forgot to mention that there’s female guest singers from an American Latin-music group called the Coconuts singing on several of these tracks, and their voices match the violin and guitar so well that it almost sounds like a rising orchestra when they start to sing the bridge.

Side two (we’re only just now to side two; I must have been ranting) begins with a totally different type of number from anything on the album up to this point. It’s “The Refugee,” and it was produced by a different producer from the rest of the album, explaining how it actually manages to do the drums kind-of alright. Now look, I’ve nothing against Steve Lillywhite, but he stands accused by the facts, not by me. The drums on most of this album are trash, and it’s not Larry Mullen Jr.’s fault. I’d like to believe it’s not the eminent Mr. Lillywhite’s fault either, but rather, the industry’s. I don’t know. The 80’s, man. Heck of a time.

As you can imagine with a song named “the Refugee,” it’s punk as hell. U2 actually formed as a punk band, like so many bands that didn’t stay punk very long, and here, you can tell their origins very clearly. Now, if rock speaks about life in the language of sex, punk speaks about life in the language of dissent and protest. This doesn’t mean tiring political rhetoric, it means stating the facts with brutal plainness and letting them indict whom they will, much like the best novelists of the realist generation. It’s a song about refugees yearning to immigrate to America, and husbands and wives getting separated by war. It has, I think, an undertone of anxiety, a creeping anxiety that perhaps America will not be everything the refugees hope. The language here is plain and does not editorialize, the vocals are raw and punkish, the guitars play a riff that is at once melodic and brutally simple, and the percussion grows on me every time I listen to it. It’s a great song, and in a way, I think it’s the title track. The backup singers sound like they’re singing (or shouting) “what war?” and at any rate, I think it’s the song on this album that uses the word the most.

There’s nothing wrong with “Two Hearts Beat as One,” but it’s not especially notable to me. It’s another “love in times of change” song, (like half the album, it seems.)

“Red Light” is nice, with more hard, punkish guitar, more vocals from the Coconuts, and lyrics that might be about suicide or about a breakup or about a prostitute. I can’t tell. The jazz trumpet solo is a nice touch, and it fits surprisingly well with the straightforward beat and guitar riff.

Surrender is a song about the big city and feeling lost and alone in it. There’s a bit of a narrative about a woman named Sadie, who considers suicide and apparently walks away from a good life because she feels something’s missing or feels guilty about being privileged. It’s an emotion that most of us can’t understand, but it exists and Bono handles it with sensitivity. The Coconuts sing here as well, and the Edge is on top of his game with massive riffs that remind me, oddly enough, of “Teenage Riot.” I like it very much, but I can’t think of a ton to say about it that’s notable enough to take up more space in this already oversized review.

So then, for the last song, Bono et al. set a Psalm to music. It’s good if you like that. It’s called 40, and it’s based on the 40th Psalm. It became a concert highlight, the “everybody sing along” number in U2’s repertoire, and once again, you can see why this band is so divisive. Religion, man. If you’re Christian, it’s great, if you’re not, you’re likely already alienated. Musically, it’s a well-done song, and it’s loads better than most attempts to pset the Psalms to mupsic, I can tell you that.

Conclusion:

Had it not found mainstream success, I think War would be counted as one of the great post-punk/early alt-rock albums of the 80’s. While the religious elements might alienate a large portion of the audience who might otherwise like the album musically, my real dislike with this album is, as you probably know by now, the plastic-sounding drums. I give it a solid 7/10.


All music reviewed here is the property of its respective owners. Images claimed under fair use. All views and opinions mine.

Pink Floyd — Atom Heart Mother (1970)

Someone who’s read my blog up to this point (not that anyone has, of course!) might wonder if I have some order that I’m doing album reviews in, or if I’m just going at random. The answer, as you might guess, is that it’s totally, completely random and spontaneous. I might eventually try to implement some kind of structure, but I might not. I like being able to pick this blog up when I want, and write about the album that I feel like writing about. Now, when I’ve burned through all the albums I know well enough to review, everything might change.atomheat

Today, we’re returning to early 70’s Pink Floyd, the first time I’ve reviewed an artist twice. As I mentioned in my King Crimson — Discipline review, Pink Floyd are one of my two favorite prog-rock bands, so it’s to be expected that I show them a bit of favoritism time and again.

I like that Pink Floyd form a sort of duality with my other favorite, Yes. Let me elaborate on that: I once read that in China, they don’t talk about “the greatest writer of the dynasty,” but about the two greatest writers of a given dynasty, so that they can talk about the contrast between them. One was lively while the other was thoughtful; one was moody while the other was even-keeled, and so on. It works for talking about Pink Floyd and Yes, because there are so many keen points of contrast. That said, I don’t know if that idea is an accurate generalization about Chinese culture, because it’s an off-handed recollection I have of a foot-note in some book.

Hey, now that I think of it, Yes once did a whole album based on an off-handed recollection of a foot-note in some book. I’m not making this up; Jon Anderson, the singer and songwriter of Yes, had read a book on a Hindu yogi, and there was a foot-note about different types of Hindu scripture that inspired him to make a massive four-part double album that was, for me, the kiss of death for Yes’s best period.

But where Yes were prone to flights of imagination, such as making an album based on a single footnote, Pink Floyd were keenly grounded in the everyday reality of the band members’ lives. From the very beginning, they wrote psychedelic music about the ugly side of reality. To use a very ugly metaphor, Yes is an upper, and Pink Floyd is a downer. I’m not saying that I find Pink Floyd depressing, but I am saying that Yes draw the eyes upwards to the heavens, so to speak, and Pink Floyd make you look around down on earth. Pink Floyd may have a very cosmic style to their music and lyrics, but it’s more of an altered awareness of real life, I think; it reminds me of David Bowie’s acute awareness that even astronauts get lonely and feel helpless. Tom Petty knew it too, in his songs about flying (which are not about drugs, or at least, not just about drugs), and so did Bernie Taupin when he wrote “Rocket Man.”

And I love that aspect of Floyd, perhaps more than anything else about them. When it’s done right, it imbues the music with real power. When overdone, like on Dark Side of the Moon, it can make me feel like they’re trying too hard to win the approval of the kind of fan that I am. And when they wrote their rock opera about the perils of stardom, the lack of relation to the mundane world alienated me completely.

I like one song, tops, from The Wall.

So if I don’t love Dark Side, and I despise 99% of The Wall, I’m not really a PF fan, am I? But I am. I like everything they did from the beginning of the band, up to and including Animals, right before they jumped the singing, depressed shark. More than that, I’m a hardcore fan of more or less everything from their second album, Saucerfull, to what is increasingly my favorite of their albums, Meddle. I earlier gave Meddle a middling review, but that was penned a long time before publication and my tastes have shifted since then.

And that, finally, brings us to today’s album, Atom Heart Mother, which is almost certainly the album where Pink Floyd collectively came of age as musicians. If I’ve front-loaded this review, it’s because I don’t actually have a ton to say about this album. One whole side of it is completely wordless, if not actually instrumental, and the remaining side has only four tracks.

The title track, sometimes called The Atom Heart Mother Suite, is a towering orchestra-backed jam session in six movements. And this is frustrating, because I’m not a classical music critic, so I can’t say that much about it. Sure, I listen to classical music, and sure, I remember enough about classical form from college to say a few things, but it’s not who I am as a critic. It’s enough to say that this song is written in a sort of avant-garde classical form, with themes introduced, explored, then recapitulated at the end. A good deal, but not all, of the weight of this song is carried by brass, cellos and choir, arranged by an outside composer named Ron Geesin. Some of the movements or sections in this piece are credited solely to band members, but most are credited as collaborations between one or two members and Geesin.

It’s an academic question whether this really counts as a PF song, given the sheer amount of it that was composed, arranged and performed by outside musicians, but you know what? I don’t really care all that much. If I get bogged down in this argument, it’s going to bother me every time I hear a string orchestra part on a rock album (and that’s a lot of great albums.) The suite is enjoyable, and Dave Gilmour and Richard Wright get in some very nice solos. I’d even say that as a whole it’s as listenable as or more listenable than the slow middle section in my favorite PF song, Echoes.

The next song is acoustic ballad “If,” at a short 4:31. Perhaps that only feels short by comparison with the suite. “If” is a very conventional PF song, harping on the same theme that would later be at the center of Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and arguably parts of that hot mess they call The Wall: the insanity and turmoil of Syd Barret.

You may know the story or you may not. Poor Syd was the band’s original front-man, who apparently lost his sanity to overuse of LSD. To hear the other members of PF tell it, Syd became anti-social, paranoid, unable to behave himself on stage, and had to be supplemented and then replaced with Dave Gilmour. This is the open emotional wound that gave Roger Waters much of his fire as PF’s primary songwriter. Only the death of Waters’ father even approaches the same level of importance in understanding Waters’ lyrics. “If” is sung from Barret’s perspective. It feels like a tamer, less angry rehash of Barret’s swan song, “Jugband Blues” from “Saucerfull of Secrets.” “If I go insane,” the singer pleads, “please don’t put your wires in my brain.” “If I go insane,” he asks later in the song, “will you still let me join in with the game?I find that last line very touching, in a way. If I went insane, I’d still want to be able to make music with my friends. There are some other lines in this song that seem very telling of Syd Barret’s last days with the band, albeit probably slanted to Waters’ side. The song also has some nice steel guitar work from Gilmour, so I’ll forgive it for dragging a little.

Next is a true oddball in PF’s catalogue, “Summer ’68.” It’s driven by Richard Wright, the keyboardist, both with his piano line and with his vocals. He rarely sang lead, so this is kind of like the “Ringo sings” song of the album, if Ringo only sang on two Beatles songs, tops. The song is about sleeping with a groupie, but with the rarely-seen and much-needed twist that, halfway through his tryst, the song’s narrator realizes how sad casual sex between strangers really is. There’s a wall between the two people in this song, and the narrator yearns to break it for even one moment. He tries for a moment of emotional intimacy when he asks “how do you feel/how do you feel?” We never hear her answer, though, and we’re led to assume she never gave one. Between a particularly poignant moment of PF’s signature yearning and sadness, and a very nice psychedelic meltdown with distorted vocals, I can’t rate this song highly enough. It actually pairs nicely on playlists with Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,which is a really cool coincidence.

The last really significant moment on the album is “Fat Old Sun,” and even this is lightweight. On “Summer ’68,” the narrator says “my friends are lying in the sun/I wish that I was there,” and as if on cue, we have a song about lying around watching a sunset. It’s in a sort of poetic genre called “pastoral,” which talks about the pleasant things in life, like fields (pastures, hence the name “pastoral,”) sunsets, and so on. It’s still full of stoic yearning for something unreachable, I think, but perhaps that’s only because of the context given to it the preceding songs, or because the vast number of Pink Floyd songs have conditioned me to expect that kind of tone.

Next is the often-maligned “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.” This is a doctored-up recording of a PF roadie talking to himself while making breakfast at home, with a couple of miniature instrumental jams superimposed onto it. It’s weird as hell, but I don’t hate it, mostly because of the roadie, Alan Styles’ pleasant, every-man personality. The instrumental parts aren’t bad.

So while it’s an unusual album even for Pink Floyd, one that rests a lot on the strength of instrumental sections and solos, it has a handful of shining moments that make it one of PF’s flawed early masterpieces like “Meddle.” My verdict: 8/10.


All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners, all opinions mine.

 

David Bowie — Station to Station (1976)

David Bowie was one of those figures who are quite impossible to describe. If someone described him as a sexually ambiguous, flamboyant glam/punk/pop/prog-rock singer with a cocaine problem and a golden voice, they’d have a lot of the facts and practically none of the essence. You couldn’t guess from that description that he’d suddenly begin dressing as a languid, pompous aristocrat, flirting with fascist ideas, and make a difficult, hard-to-classify album with themes of Jewish mysticism, modern occultism, and religious yearning. Now, to anyone really familiar with the earlier Bowie, it’s not quite as huge of a jump as it sounds, but it’s still a bleak, unusual period for him. index

The album is “Station to Station.” It’s not a genre piece.  I’ve seen it called “blue-eyed soul,” and I’ve seen it called a pop album, and I’ve seen it called prog-rock, and it’s pretty telling that all three work equally well. Somebody once told me that the best music gets made when people awkwardly shove multiple genres together and then kind of jam with it until it sounds right. I’m nearly sure that’s how rock-and-roll was invented in the first place, with blues, gospel and country elements coming together and losing whatever aspects were incompatible.

Here, Bowie and his band combine pop, the genre he’s most comfortable working with, with soul, funk, prog-rock, and whatever else came into their heads, apparently. Does it work? I think it does, but it’s not an stellar album on an instrumental  level. Bowie’s constant self-reinvention prevented this sound from enduring onto a second album, but if he’d stayed with it it might have matured into something better.

How are the songs?

Well, the title-track is Bowie’s very longest at 10:14. It’s also one of his darkest and proggiest, and is notable as the only time the words “Thin White Duke” appear on a Bowie song. This was the pseudo-fascist, elitist aristocrat in a baggy white tuxedo shirt and a dark vest who was Bowie’s stage persona at the time. Bowie was bone-thin and, like the character, was actually taking mind-blowing amounts of cocaine, so the line between persona and reality is blurred quite a bit, typical for Bowie.

Is it a good song? I like it alright. The long buildup to the actual music, with synthesized train noises, could have been cut. The organ part for the slow, plodding, doom-rockish A-section is very nice, reminding me somehow of ELP, and the B-section is still filled with dread, but more upbeat. The lyrics and vocals are definitely the strong point, as you might expect with Bowie. He sings from the point of view of this aristocrat, who is on cocaine, engaged in occult activities, and thinks he’s in love. I mean, what did you expect, a normal song from Bowie? It’s no Life on Mars, but it’s a good song. I especially like the repetition of “It’s too late,” throughout the last part of the song. Repeating the same line over and over is an interesting technique, which makes the line bear a lot of weight, but can capture obsession, passion or dread very well, depending on the line in question. This is a technique that Kurt Cobain would later perfect, in my opinion. “All in all is all we are…”

Next is the funky pseudo-love song of the album, “Golden Years.” This is the only song from this album that classic rock stations seem to play once in a while. It’s one of only three Bowie songs that my local station plays, in fact, and some of you can guess the other two. It says something about Bowie that such a weird song is the album’s most “normal.”

It’s based primarily on a funk vamp, more or less the instrumental equivalent of repeating the same line over and over. It portrays passion very well at the musical level, but can get tiring. Thankfully, it’s well executed here and never grates. The lyrics and vocals are average for Bowie. He sings about wanting to guard the object of his affections for “a thousand years.” He also has an emotional breakdown later in the song and shouts to heaven “O, Lord, I believe, I believe all the way,” which stands in stark contrast to some thing he says in the very next song. It’s passionate, danceable and, honestly, quite fun to sing in the shower, so I like it a lot.

Then comes a vaguely soul/gospel-influenced song along the same general thematic lines, “Word on a Wing.” In this, Bowie prays for his love to return to him, but doubts that it would fit into God’s “scheme of things,” showing that his religious declaration in “Golden Years” has been replaced with doubt and a certain level of cynicism. It has a very nice melody and some good lines, but Bowie’s voice wears thin here, as though he’d recorded it in one session with the first two songs.

So the album’s been arty and emotional so far, but it really hasn’t been that weird. It’s not like there’s a piano-driven boogie-woogie number about a man worshiping a TV that ate his girlfriend, right? Oh, wait, there is, it’s “TVC-15.”

Cocaine, ladies and gentlemen, is a hell of a drug. Later, Bowie barely remembered this time in his life, saying that he could listen to Station to Station as though a different man had made it, though this may have more to do with his emotional detachment from the persona. He did recall that this was a time when he pondered such philosophical questions as the existence of God and whether he could turn on a TV telekinetically. At around the same time, Iggy Pop, a long-time close friend of Bowie’s, had a bad trip on something no doubt a little stronger than chamomile tea, and hallucinated that a television was eating his girlfriend.

And that’s the song. It’s Bowie singing that scenario. It’s catchy as heck, and Bowie’s band somehow managed to make psyched-out doom-rock over a boogie template, which earns them major points with me.

“Stay” just isn’t notable to me. It also has a funky main riff, more of the half-spoken lyrics that Bowie went in for during this period, and really, it just sounds like “Golden Years” and “Word on a Wing” rehashed. I can easily understand how someone might really like this song, but it does very little for me.

Then for the finale, Bowie covers a 1950’s song popularized by Joe Mathis*. “Wild is the Wind.” Like an antique Timex that still keeps time, the song holds up. Plus, covering a song from the 50’s is always a classy move. It reminds me of the White Stripes covering “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” which worked as well. Bowie’s version is passionate, but shaky and perishing. He sounds as old here as he did on his final album, but even more driven. And more than the original, I believe him when he says “we are creatures of the wind…    and wild is the wind.”

I appreciate that Bowie can pull off reverb’d-up vocals so well. Only Porter Wagoner does it better, I think.

(*Being from the South and not quite old enough to be very familiar with Joe Mathis, I naturally confused him with the country singer “Joe ‘Country’ Mathis,” and wrote a heart-felt aside about 50’s country. When I realized that this was not the case, I almost left it and pretended I didn’t know better.)

So while any number of very strange artistic choices were made here, Bowie shows he can pull off almost anything. More than that, he shows that he can do a stark and dramatic performance as much as he can a flamboyant and colorful one. My only complaint is that some of the production sounds sloppy. Over-all, I give it 7.5/10.


All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners, all images found on Google marked for reuse. All opinions mine.

Concert — Dave Rawlings Machine (1/24/18, Lyric Theater, Birmingham AL)

Image result for dave rawlings machine

(Not an actual picture from this concert.)

I’m trying something a little different with this post. I don’t go to concerts as much as I would like, but when I do, it’s usually an artist that makes the expenditure and (since I live in the middle of nowhere) travel worth it for me. In other words, the kind of artist who’s worth it for me to review. So when I do go to a concert, I’ll try to write about it.

Now, I have a complicated relationship with Dave Rawlings Machine. See, going on twenty-two years ago, Dave Rawlings came on the scene as the backup singer and lead guitarist for an extremely talented singer-songwriter named Gillian Welch. Some of you might well remember her from the award-winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, in which she sang on two songs with Allison Kraus and company. Image result for dave rawlings and gillian welch

Her career has been one of quiet success, with the majority of her music being difficult-to-classify acoustic music with folk and country inflection, but with an entirely fresh, clean, airy texture based on her simple rhythm guitar and Dave Rawlings’ virtuosic acoustic lead. Her voice is usually tenor and her songs are usually sad, with the air of a hard life in the country or a marginal existence in the    city. My favorite of her albums was “Time (The Revelator),” which brought this perfect texture to its most minimal. I can only think to call it “the new mountain music,” with its ringing, dulcimer-like tones and old-time influences. Driving in the Appalachians with that album on feels right.

So when Rawlings became the more dominant personality, to the point where she became a member of his band, the Machine, and they started making fun, up-tempo bluegrass and folk with a rich texture, you’d think I’d hate it, right? Initially, yes, I didn’t like it. It seemed like a shame for her to not be the main artist, and from lack of exposure, I had trouble convincing myself that Rawlings even had a personality outside of singing harmony and playing guitar. But then a friend told me how great their concerts were, and played their most recent album for me.

And let me tell you, I was sold almost immediately. The new music was nothing like Revelator, but it was great.

Birmingham was the nearest tour date this year, and despite the drive, I went. The Lyric is an upscale theater, and I was worried that there’d be the dreaded invisible wall between the performers and the sea of spectators below. But somehow, the band’s easy-going personalities and use of the downstage area made it an intimate performance in the best sense. Four of the band’s members stood in a row like an early rock band, with the bassist behind. They were not far behind the footlights, and it was more clear than at any other concert I’ve ever been to that they were there to have a good time and entertain the audience.

Welch, a tiny, bone-thin, white-haired woman in a flowing Victorian dress, opened the first song by hamboning the rhythm. I had never seen a woman do that, to be fully honest, not least one deathly thin as Welch was. I don’t even remember the opening song, to be honest, but the intro was one of the more memorable moments.

The band as it tours consists of David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson, all of whom play guitar and sing, Brittany Haas, who plays violin, and Paul Kowert, who plays bass and sings. Most of them can play the banjo, too.

And to my mind, these people could make music in any genre they wanted. Rawlings is a virtuoso, whose ability to solo melodically in any type of scale and mode puts many modern jazz guitarists to shame. Welch with her characteristic tenor has the range of Robert Plant and come to think of it, so does Rawlings. All five are fast, accurate, and able to improvise on their instruments. As a rock act, they’d be more than capable. But there is no question in my mind that modern bluegrass is the proper and fitting genre for them. It’s full of life, but capable of sad songs, fighting songs, religious songs and bawdy songs, and it shows off the full skills of the musicians in a very unique way.

There were almost too many highlights to go into. Nearly every song had a brilliant guitar solo from Rawlings, and many of them had breakdowns in which Haas and Rawlings traded solos. In the first set, the crowd seemed to enjoy “Yup” the most, a song about the devil taking an old nagging country wife only to find that she was too tough for him. It’s infectious, with a simple folk melody, the oddly catchy one-word refrain “yup,” and some very funny lines. The really shining moment has to be “There were two little devils with a ball and chain/she up with her foot and kicked out their brains… yup.” It’s still not the song that impressed me the most.

Nor was “Cumberland Gap,” a new take on an old bluegrass theme. It was brilliant, though, with a hard-stomping melody and an old-time ballad feel. “Cumberland gap, it’s a devil of a gap,” Rawlings sings, referring to a difficult crossing in the Appalachians near where Kentucky and Virginia run into Tennessee. My only complaint is that it sounds a lot like “Ohio,” by CSNY, but that cuts both ways, since “Ohio” sounds like a lot of old folk songs. I can’t really fault them for using such a perfect and ancient melody. Haas showed off a lot on this song, playing violin with classical precision, but in the old-time fiddle mode. She’s possibly the least extroverted member of the band, likely the youngest, but on songs like this, she holds her own.

Willie Watson showed he could also front  the band on “Keep it Clean,” from one of his solo albums. He and Rawlings discussed whether it was a dirty song. Watson, who wrote it, claimed he didn’t know. The lyrics are incomprehensible, but the puerile male imagination runs wild on the suggestion, don’t you know? It was far more of a rhythm guitar-oriented stomper than most of the set. He also played his take on “If I Had My Way,” the classic blues song that Blind Willie McTell allegedly used to make a political statement in front of the Customs House in New Orleans in the 30’s.

The first set was mostly taken from Dave Rawlings Machine’s most recent album, “Poor David’s Almanack,” with “Good God, A Woman,” “Come on Over My House,” “Money is the Meat,” “Guitar Man,” and “Airplane” showing up in addition to the songs from the album I already mentioned. And they jammed the hell out of them all. Probably every song exceeded its recorded length by a minute or more, and not one song felt like a let-down in the energy level. And while I’d criticized Rawling’s repetitive lyrics, it didn’t sound half as lazy live. Even the oddly-worded and awkward “Come on Over My House” worked in that setting.

At some point in the first set, Willie Watson came over to the side of the stage where Brittany Haas was playing violin and began playing another violin in harmony. This is one of the things that I love about music, the thing which compelled me in younger days to learn guitar and other instruments even when I didn’t feel like I was making progress: there’s just about nothing like making music with someone you like. It draws people together, like going to war together without the fighting, or romance without the complications. I’ve played guitar with at least two beautiful women I’d never have a chance with and with some of  my closest friends; and to my mind, there’s nothing like it for enjoying each other’s company. So when I recognized what must have been this feeling between the two of them playing violin together, I was happy for them, even as I was nostalgic for old times and old friends.

Music, like any art, is supposed to portray the truth about the world–no one knows this better than Gillian Welch, I’m sure–but sometimes music can step outside the world and be an escape from it instead. I can’t find anything wrong with that, as much as some might.

The two full sets, or the main set with intermission, were already one of the great concerts of my life, but then came the encore. I don’t actually remember the first song they played after they ran back out during the ovation. The second or third, however, was “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer.” This is a medley of a Bright Eyes song that was fairly mediocre when the original artist recorded it, and a long Neil Young song off of “Zuma,” joined together by a long guitar solo. I haven’t actually heard the version from one of Rawlings’ albums, but I knew it from Rawlings and Welch’s NPR “Tiny Desk Concert,” and I had hoped they would play it.

I think both songs hit full bloom only when played in this fashion by Dave Rawlings Machine. Now, that’s a strong statement to make, considering one of those songs is a Neil Young song, and a well-loved and critically acclaimed one at that. But I believe it. The Bright Eyes song was just another pessimistic alt-rock number for singer Connor Oberst, who sung it without much emphasis and, honestly, didn’t convince me all that much. I mean, honestly, how old is Oberst, and how much does he actually have to be pessimistic about? I don’t actually know, but he sounds young and overly dramatic. But Rawlings and Welch have been projecting gritty, hard-earned life experience since they were his age, and that’s only become more true with time. Oberst’s line “But I know I feel better when I sing,” puts into words something very true of Welch and Rawlings, that they sing about their lives to make sense of them and feel better. It rings as true when they sing Oberst’s words as when they sang the last, life-affirming lines of “Acony Bell” twenty-odd years ago.

And then there’s “Cortez the Killer.” I’ve heard many people sing this song, and I think out of all of them, only Neil Young, Welch and Rawlings really get it. Young doesn’t get points for that because he wrote it, of course.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Young is that he can write stories that take place in fantastic settings, but with emotional reality. When he spent his ambiguous night in a teepee with Marlon Brando and a Powhatan princess in the song called “Pocahontas,” it wasn’t just a tall tale. He really felt an emotion that made him long to know those people. When he time-travels, whether it’s back to see Pocahontas or forward to see the spaceships evacuating the chosen few from the dying Earth, and even if his time machine is a psychotropic drug, he’s nevertheless on an emotional journey, one that he doesn’t share with the world lightly. And this is another one of his time travel songs, I think.

In “Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young writes about an idealized and largely fictional Aztec Empire with a genuine yearning for a better place than here and now. But in the last verse, he blind-sides us with the line “And I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day/I just can’t remember when and how I lost my way.” In the narrative, it seems his love is stuck in another time and another place. While this is probably a metaphor for love lost in a more conventional way, it’s still a hell of a metaphor. He’s stuck centuries from her, on another continent, and can’t find his way back. Haven’t we all felt that about someone or some situation? Too many poets and writers have tried to express this feeling for it to be uncommon.

And when this song is juxtaposed with the first one, both take on new meaning somehow. I don’t pretend to understand why this works, but it seems like “Method Acting” fits into the emotional narrative of “Cortez,” and that “Cortez” makes “Method Acting” more believable by giving the singer something else to sing about besides his pain. How does Connor Oberst feel better by singing, when the song is a meditation on the struggles of life? But by adding “Cortez,” Dave Rawlings is palpably moving on and singing about something else, and it makes the first song more believable. Meanwhile, by fitting neatly into the narrative of “Cortez,” “Method Acting” adds to the second song too. I think it’s like synergy.

“A language learned and forgotten turned is studied once again…” makes me imagine the time traveler from “Cortez” trying to relearn a language he spoke twenty years ago from his perspective, but hundreds of years ago in real time, so that when he goes back and finds that girl living in ancient Tenochtitlan, the language barrier won’t keep them separate a second longer than they have to be. Am I overthinking this? Of course I am.

And to see them perform it live, with the heightened emotions of a long concert and the memory of a very recent, very enthusiastic standing ovation: well, it was intense.

And then they followed it up by giving an a capella rendition of “Go to Sleep, Little Baby” which Welch sang on on the “O Brother,” soundtrack, before running back off-stage. Few people still have such a grasp on old-time vocal harmonies. It was a short song, but very sweetly done.

It was about eleven at night when I got out and two-thirty in the morning when I got home. I didn’t regret losing that sleep at all. For musicianship and emotional effect, I must say it was a fantastic concert, one I won’t soon forget.

King Crimson — Discipline (1981)

Before I begin this review properly, I’m going to have to apologize to hardcore King Crimson fans. I only know one album and a couple of earlier songs by the band. While I know that they existed in earlier and very different incarnations that are perhaps better-acclaimed or at least more popular, I don’t know a thing about them.

See, despite liking the genre, I’ve never really been a hardcore prog fan. Pink Floyd and Discipline - Original Vinyl Cover.jpgYes are the only prog bands I’d consider myself generally knowledgeable about, with ELP a distant third. But I have albums or at least songs from Alan Parsons Project, Genesis, Prog-era solo Peter Gabriel and others I’m probably forgetting either on vinyl or on my computer. But overall, it’d seem that I’m generally a casual fan. So when a friend gave me a CD of Discipline about five years ago, it was with the warning that I might not like the band or the album.

And I didn’t, not at first. I listened to the first few tracks, decided almost automatically that it wasn’t my kind of prog, and forgot about it for several days. Then, that week, I caught myself humming “Frame by Frame,” thought “hey, that’s actually a pretty good song,” and I gave the album another chance. As a matter of fact, that’s the exact same way I came to love “Court and Spark,” by Joni Mitchell, which I’ve already mentioned among my favorite albums. In fact, it was the same friend who gave me both albums, come to think of it.

Worlds apart in tone, genre and feel from “Court and Spark,” but perhaps reflective of some of the same 70’s-&-early 80’s trends, Discipline is also a textured, likable album that rewards close listening, even if it features too much spoken word for my taste. Like many of my favorite albums, it’s from that era in the late 20th century when, in music at least, the world was all before us, an era when world music flourished on the international scene and wide-eyed optimism could have a place in popular music. God, what happy years they seem like, looking back solely through the lens of music. I don’t have to tell you that that’s not what they were really like.

The album opens strong with a Hendrix-esque hammer-on/pull-off trill from the celebrated avant-garde guitarist Robert Fripp, late of collaborations with Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. If you know any of their music from the era, this alone should tell you what kind of guitarist he is, but it’s probably also telling that he’s the guy who tried to popularize a “new standard tuning,” and entirely new types of harmony into rock guitar. Then we hear the fascinating “Chapman stick,” a kind of tapping guitar-and-bass combo, played by another recent Peter Gabriel collaborator, Tony Levin. The texture soars almost immediately into totally uncharted space, at least for Western audiences. My understanding is that Robert Fripp, who was in the original, disbanded King Crimson, wanted to reform the band as a “rock gamelan.” A gamelan is a sort of Indonesian orchestra that creates a thick, multi-layered musical texture, and that’s exactly what Fripp and Levin do in the first few seconds.

So how is the song (“Elephant Talk”) after the first few seconds? Interesting. But also stupid.

Stupid may be an overstatement. The new front-man, Adrian Belew, who had been in the Talking Heads and who went on to play the famous synth riff in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” lists words related to “talking” in alphabetical order, while making elephant noises with his guitar. So that’s the kind of band we’re dealing with. Not avant-garde, they’d probably tell us, capital-A Avant-Garde. And you know, I don’t hate it, despite this. It’s catchier than it sounds in this description, and it could almost be a Talking Heads song. Adrian Belew clearly patterned his vocal delivery after David Byrne’s.

So is the next one better? Hell yes. “Frame by Frame” holds up to my initial liking for it.It begins with another “stick”-heavy, “gamelan” intro, before breaking down into a more minimalistic texture for the verse. The melody of the verse is catchy as hell, but the lyrics are slight, almost just wordplay. “Death by drowning/in your arms, in your arms” is a great pop hook, lyrically and melodically, though. I also like the melody when he sings “Analysis!” right after the hook.

(I just looked it up, and apparently, it’s “death by drowning/in your own, in your own/analysis.” I almost like the mondegreen better, as bad as that is to say.)

The song starts strong and finishes strong with an “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”-style sudden ending in the outro, but is probably too busy for some people’s tastes. One can definitely hear 90125 era Yes here, and in fact, Tony Levin eventually played in a shortlived Yes lineup. But that’s another long story.

Next is the first, originally-published version of the only ballad on the album, “Matte Kudasai” (the title is apparently Japanese for “please, wait”). It has a more conventional, jazzy texture, with soaring slide-guitar lines and watery, processed arpeggios. The lyrics are a bit sentimental and are delivered a bit sentimentally, but the texture is so nice and the vocals fit so well into it that I can’t really take issue with it.

There’s an alternate version with an additional lead part at the end of most versions of the album, but not the original pressing. I can’t decide which I like better, the alternate, or the original. The latter is too busy, the first not busy enough, maybe.

Next is another song with rather dopey spoken word from Belew, “Indiscipline.” The narrative here is that the speaker is a mentally unbalanced man who is obsessing over something that he stole: we never find out what. The music in the intro is a similar layered texture to the first two songs, but with a harder edge that I quite like, but it’s not quite enough to salvage the song. The looped “I repeat myself when under stress” is an annoying gimmick, and the whole thing grates on me.

(Apparently, the monologue is adapted from a letter Belew sent to his wife of the time, concerning a sculpture she had made. I don’t really know how to fit that in with the actual song, but whatever.)

A similar situation to “Indiscipline” exists with “Theela Hun Ginjeet.” That’s not Sanskrit for anything, much as they might want us to think so. It’s an anagram for “heat in the jungle.” So yeah, we have here a song about gang violence. The annoying part comes after the (quite good) intro, which has one of the nastiest, funkiest bass-lines I’ve ever heard, courtesy of Levin. The annoying part is Adrian Belew talking into a pocket tape recorder about… walking around talking into a pocket tape recorder in the big city, which seemingly gets him harassed by both gang members and the police. I think his crazy-person persona had something to do with it, too.  That trashy mono recording eats up more of the song than it has any right to. I like the song somewhat, entirely on the strength of that bass-line and the whole intro.

The next song is nice. It’s a more gamelan-styled, eight-minute instrumental titled “The Sheltering Sky” after an old novel. It’s one of my favorites from the album, but I don’t have much to say about it or about “Discipline,” another, harder instrumental. Their sonic experimentation is uniformly good and listenable. The album closes, in my copy, with the alternate version of “Matte Kudasai.”

So, while I think that the spoken word is too much and too pretentious, the album is a very nice piece of later prog, and a relic of an era that is very near to my heart. 5.5/10


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Blitzen Trapper — Wild Mountain Nation (2007)

It’s a bit of a departure from my previous posts, which have all stayed firmly in the twentieth century, but it’s always been my intention to review a broad range of eras and genres on this blog. So without further ado, here’s my review of ’07’s “Wild Mountain Nation.”

Blitzen Trapper are one of those bands that seemed poised to get really big for the longest time, but never really did. You may remember that even Rolling Stone liked them circa ’09? But somehow, they keep narrowly missing mass appeal. I like them, and not for the obscurity value. For the span of about four albums, several singles and one EP, starting with this album, the Portland, Oregon group had a sound unlike any other band I know of.

This sound was just developing when they recorded “Wild Mountain Nation,” and as a result there’s a lot more noise rock on this album than on any of their later ones. The album opens noisy, in fact, with the blisteringly fast, heavily distorted and compressed opening chords of “Devil’s A-Go-Go.” But unlike many lo-fi alt-rock songs that have nothing but noise, it’s got a funky rhythm and a clean bridge section that make it quite listenable, even if the lyrics are hard to make out. One might think of Sonic Youth jamming with the Allman Brothers, as improbable as that sounds.

Then comes the title track, “Wild Mountain Nation.” This is the first moment in perhaps their entire discography where they really shine. Country-inflected, vaguely Dicky Betts-sounding lead guitar, heart-felt lyrics about building a life with your lover in the wilderness, warm vocal harmonies; it’s a well-tuned roots-rock formula. The way they put it all together, with a veneer of noise rock, it doesn’t sound like anything else I know of. The lines “when the red moon wanes/we’ll be moving on the plain/through the tall grass out to the sea” are perhaps the prototypical example of frontman Eric Earley’s songwriting talent, showing his concern with wildlife, nature and freedom. He seems to speak somehow of an older, pantheistic world, where people living out at the fringes of society could have the freedom otherwise only given to animals. Perhaps more than any other single song, the title track makes an ideal introduction for the new listener. My only complaint? It’s too short.

Next is “Futures and Folly,” a song that shows how uncertain the band were of their ideal formula at this time. It’s a song about growing up, not an uncommon thing for Blitzen Trapper, but it has what I think is a very different style of song-writing and arrangement. It’s not bad. Instrumentally, it’s a little slight, but it has some nice lines, like “the words are arranged like birds in a cage…” and “my love I compare to a cloudless rain.” Perhaps only proximity to the vastly different title-track makes me feel the song is out of place here.

Then comes another one of their low-fi songs, “Miss Spiritual Tramp” in which Earley seems to be singing about gang violence and a femme fatale that comes to him in a dream, though the lyrics are hard to hear, as they’re mixed very closely in with the guitar in a way that would make Steve Albini proud. The real shining moment comes at about 1:40 or so, when the when the brutal, fuzz-covered noise-rock riffs lighten up and give way to distorted harmonica and jaw harp for a brief break. That’s as good an indicator as anything what essential kind of band we’re dealing with. More than the fact that they attempt some kind of alt-bluegrass break, the fact that they pull it off in juxtaposition with such a heavy song is impressive. Blitzen Trapper’s key strength is that they can transport you to a world where hard rock has always been this way, jagged guitar lines trading off with harmonica, jaw harp, melodica, and other things that have usually been relegated to folk, country and bluegrass. It helps that Eric Earley has a massive command of the harmonica, with John Popper-esque ability to play lead on the instrument. I’d compare him to Little Walter, but there isn’t a harpist born that I can compare to that saintly figure in good conscience. Listen to Walter’s “Juke,” and you’ll see what I mean.

“Woof and Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem” is slight. Whether or not it’s an instrumental would be an academic question, since the only lyrics are “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” The band very skillfully sells it with a screeching, melodic guitar line, enthusiastic vocals, punkish drumming and a lead break towards the middle that flies into “Thunderstruck” airspace. Still, filler is not my main thing. I can almost say that “Woof and Warp” is not filler, but the lack of lyrics makes that a little dishonest. I like it despite it being filler, and that’s an uphill battle.

(The woof and warp, by the way, are the two sets of thread in woven fabric that run perpendicular to each other.)

Next is a very weird piece, even for a notoriously weird band. “Sci-Fi Kid” seems to be about growing up with your nose in a sci-fi book (and we’ve all been there, right? Right….? Guys?), but this theme is subsumed in the layer of imagination that the narrator casts on his situation. It has a sound like literally no other Blitzen Trapper song, lighter and more atmospheric, but at the the same time more dance-oriented than most of the previous songs, with a retro-electronic breakdown toward the end. I can only compare it in tone and style to “Futures and Folly,” but even that is a distant cousin. The lyrics are all right, even interesting, if you were also a sci-fi kid. I like the line “In a fainting world, spinning out of time,” and “breaking in, pecking holes in this lonesome heart/it’s just an extra part, in a kid like me.” It’s an odd kind of self-deprecating, though, and I’m almost inclined to wonder if one of the other band members besides Eric Earley wrote it. I don’t have any credits on hand for the album, though. Modern vinyl is well outside my price range, even for Blitzen Trapper.

Next, the band throw in a one-minute-and-change snippet of what I take to be a larger jam session, in this case a banjo-textured bluegrass tune that borrows its only lyrics from the chorus of the title track. “Wild Mountain Jam” suffers more from my dislike of filler than “Woof and Warp” does. But like that song, I can admit that it adds texture to the album. On another note, it’s also titled very similarly to the monumental two-part jam session on Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers, “Mountain Jam,” which could swallow this track whole about 19 times if I remember right. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I can’t be asked to find it. It shows the changing times, if nothing else.

And here’s the point at which my usual strategies for reviewing a song cease to work, since we run into two tracks that are harder to think of in terms of song structure, arrangement and style. I keep referring to Sonic Youth in writing this review, mainly as a sort of poster-child for a certain style of noise-rock. That may not be fair to the band or the genre; I don’t have an extensive background with either, since in either event I own three of their albums and that’s about my experience with classic noise-rock so far. But the comparison is very useful in looking at Blitzen Trapper in their early days.

Now, after two albums, a band often comes of age in a big way, leaving their earlier sound behind in a radical way. But while they did come of age on this album, Blitzen Trapper are interesting because they needed to find the right balance between an initial noise-rock/lo-fi sound and a sort of roots-rock strain that came to dominate their music to the exclusion of all else. Here, on their third album and on the beginning of their winning streak, they had only just begun to leave their original sound behind. So while their burgeoning country, bluegrass and folk influences allow me to compare them to the Allmans, their noise-rock demands that I compare them to something more typical of that genre as well. And for me, and for many, that’s Sonic Youth.

The next song, “Hot Tip/Tough Cub,” I don’t pretend to have a grasp on. I can’t make out most of the lyrics through the distortion and layered, oceanic soundscape. If it weren’t for the very distinct vocals of Eric Earley, it wouldn’t sound out of place on “Bad Moon Rising,” that early cult hit by Sonic Youth that I don’t pretend to understand either. It’s nice to listen to, it’s very nice to listen to, but for someone who came to listen to Blitzen Trapper for the lyrics as well as for the music, it’s a little inaccessible.

Next is a slightly more acoustically-oriented, but still layered and washed-out soundscape called “The Green King Sings.” I can’t make out most of the lyrics, but the first line of the bridge goes “the Green King sings, his voice moves like the air, like the air,” and that is enough to haunt me. In another world glimpsed only in this song, where there’s such a thing as “the Green King,” it must be a good and noble thing that he sings, and that his voice is beautiful.

In the B-section of “Green King”, Eric Earley makes his first invocation to a sort of “magical lover”-archetype that he seems to sing a lot about. To his lover, he says “Girl, I love your amazing ways/keep me honest, keep me dazed.” This verse establishes a pattern that runs through most of his better love songs. He pleads his girl not to make love to him or something like that, but to make him a better person. It’s reminiscent, perhaps, of old ideas about the Eternal Feminine, but without the uncomfortably chauvinist implications that that carries. This archetype gets picked up both on this album and on the next three, and it always makes for some of his most compelling lyrics.

The next song, Murder Babe, returns nearer to a standard rock formula, with hard-driving riffs and blues-scale lead. It flirts with becoming a noise-rock soundscape, but aside from a few lead breaks, generally sticks to being a vocally-driven verse-chorus song. This isn’t to say the lyrics are audible; they’re still very lo-fi.

And that brings me to my two actual favorites on this album: the first is “Country Caravan,” easily the most country song on the album, appropriately enough, with a texture of strummed acoustic and classic steel guitar lead. It’s hard to tell what Earley’s singing about. The lyrics are cryptic, but mostly it seems the song is about a spiritual woman, much in the same pattern as the lover in “Green King,” who travels in the “slow-rolling country caravan of many sons.” It has some of Earley’s best lines ever, like “Baby’s got to praise like a river on the cusp/crashing through the levee, moving with a mighty rush” and one of my favorite similes in any song, “moving over like a storm.” It’s interesting to see the archetypical lover again so soon; normally songs about her happen once an album.

And then there’s a little one verse country number about the apocalypse called “Badger’s Black Brigade,” so short that they apparently added an instrumental reprise after the fact. This is another song with great lyrics, if extremely brief. I can’t pick a favorite line from it, but the last two are very evocative of the tone of the song: “Corn-swept fields are full of fighting men without a king/Last-born man, and this world won’t save you.

So, while the balance between noise-rock and roots-rock still needed to be tweaked very slightly (one way or the other), it’s certainly one of the band’s best, in my opinion. To come of age so suddenly after a frankly uninspiring second album is very impressive. I give it a 8.5/10. Their next, which I’m planning to review soon, is one of my top ten albums of all time.


All material reviewed here belongs to its respective owners, all images found marked for non-comercial use, all views and opinions mine.

And yes, I recognize now that I skipped a song; unfortunately I’m not near my copy of WMN to review it. It was probably filler if I forgot about, I think.

 

 

Bob Dylan–Hard Rain (1976)

Among a certain category of old rock fans, there are certain live performances and tours that have passed into legend. How many of you would give front teeth to see the Allman Image result for hard rain bob dylanBrothers live “At Fillmore East”? Led Zeppelin at Earl’s Court in 1975? Anyone at Woodstock? (Not the trashy, violent turn-of-the-century Woodstock I saw Counting Crows at, that is. Woodstock ’69.) Cash at Folsom Prison comes to mind as well.

Well, Bob Dylan fans have one too. The Rolling Thunder Revue tour is famous among Dylan fans as one of his most creative eras, when he rocked the hardest and sung the most sincerely. Now, while I might pay boatloads to go back in time and see Dylan argue stoned with someone who keeps shouting “hey, Bob, cocaine!” at him, at Newport Folk Festival 1964, for many fans, it’d have to be the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975-76.

An interesting historical note: As far as I know, the final concert of the Rolling Thunder tour was the last time Bob Dylan was ever in my hometown, Hattiesburg. It was the only concert on the tour that wasn’t sold out, a fact once sheepishly admitted to me by the old man who promoted the concert.

Often critically panned, the official live album from this tour has got to be one of my all-time favorite Dylan albums. “Hard Rain” is unlikely to make someone a Dylan fan, but a real Dylan fan will agree that it rocks hard.

It starts slow, with a performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the protest anthem that marked the first time he performed electric in 1965. Honestly, that performance was more impressive, as he sounds somehow unconvinced here, and his voice is, frankly, a little off-key. Still, the slow buildup to the intro over the raucous crowd is a great way to start an album.

And then comes “One Too Many Mornings.” Originally a finger-picked acoustic number that felt vaguely out-of-place on “The Times, They are a-Changing,” here it’s played as a medium-tempo rock ballad with what I take to be electric violin from string player Scarlet Rivera, a frankly beautiful arrangement. And at this moment more than ever, you believe Dylan when he says he’s “one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind,” or at least, I do. There’s a bright-eyed, stoned fatigue in his voice, like a man who gets up in the morning in a cheap hotel room and stares uncomprehending at the light pouring in through the gap in the curtains, wondering how it can be morning but not resenting that it is. For it’s time to be moving on, like on all those other mornings.

Sometimes, when I pick up a guitar to practice, and I don’t have a set-list to prepare, I immediately want to play Guaranteed,” by Eddie Vedder, but more often I want to Travis-pick the chords to this song, which, incidentally, are the same chords as half the songs on “The Times,” G-Em-C-G, G-Em-C-D… honestly, you can sing half the songs ever written to that.

Next is “Stuck inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again.” Most Dylan fans probably know this from the legendary “Blonde on Blonde” album, but I actually first heard it here. It’s another one of Dylan’s bizarre, psychedelic ballads about being lost in the city, a fainter echo of “Desolation Row,” but it gets rocked hard here, and whatever he’s singing about, he feels it. There’s genuine anger when he sings “me, I expected it to happen when I seen him lose control,” which is what leads me to believe that most of his bizarre songs have an actual coherent meaning in his mind, or at least a set of real events they refer to. And boy, does the band rock, led by Dylan and the famous T-Bone Burnett.

Robert Christgau, whom I suspect of simply not liking music, described the Rolling Thunder Revue on this album as sounding like “folkies whose idea of rock and roll is rock and roll clichés.” This could not be farther from the truth. If I ever have a band that sounds so good live with such simple elements, I’m taking it straight to California and getting rich. He is right, at least, in saying that the band are folkies, but folkies appreciate the elemental sounds in music. No one shreds on this album, they just play well together as a group, each playing their instrument and not wishing they could be playing another, and as a result, they sound huge.

Next is another violin-heavy ballad, written not long before the Rolling Thunder tour, during Bob Dylan’s brief phase (captured on the album “Desire”) in which he co-wrote all his songs with some unknown songwriter, Jaques Levy. Whoever did the bulk of the writing for “Oh, Sister” was, nevertheless, a skilled poet. This song is carried perhaps 40% by the band and 60% by the vocals and lyrics, an unusual thing for Dylan. But with lines like “Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore,” it’s not surprising. It reminds me of a brief and passionate romance, tinged with religious feeling, that I had in my teen years, so perhaps I’m not that objective about it, but I think it’s a great song. I can also recommend Andrew Bird’s cover.

And then, seemingly because someone in the audience has been loudly requesting it from almost the beginning of the album, they play “Lay, Lady Lay.” This is representative of an earlier, dubious era in Dylan’s songwriting, about five or six years before, when he had quit smoking and his voice had somehow gotten worse for the trouble, and when he seemingly had no idea what was un-listenable slop and what wasn’t. So here he is, singing of his undisguised lust for some girl, talking of himself in the third person and using rather sketchy lines like “his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean.” Like even Dylan’s worst song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” this song has at least one line I like, but it’s the band that support this one.

But then he makes it up to us in a big way on Side 2, with “Shelter from the Storm,” off the previous year’s “Blood on the Tracks,” which held perhaps his most critically acclaimed songwriting. This was the era that Dylan got into Rimbaud, Verlaine and Dante Alighieri, and started trying to make his songs poetry. Made into a hard-rock song here, with a great slide-guitar lick, it’s the best version, in my opinion. He sings of a woman who picked him up off the side of the road and restored him to life, a theme that really resonates with me, but I suspect I’m not alone in that. That bright-eyed stonedness I mentioned earlier? You hear it here as well.

The next song, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” is off “Blood” as well, and it has some of Dylan’s more dubious songwriting choices from that album, like the line “time is a jet plane, it moves too fast/what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last.” Reaching a bit for the rhyme? But it has a great melody and works well as a follow-up to “Shelter,” so I’m not complaining.

And here I must make a confession: My teenage recollections of this album stop here, since my LP was too scratched-up beyond this point to listen (and in fact, that’s the vinyl copy I still own.) But while the final two tracks don’t have the same afterglow of memory hanging around their edges, I’ve listened to them on CD a number of times.

“I Threw it all Away” is not bad. It’s got some good lines, but is this not faint praise when I’ve already said that Dylan’s worst song had some good lines? Well, I must say I’m not huge on filler.

And then comes the disaster. “Idiot Wind” is a great song. It’s an angry breakup song that turns self-loathing and regretful three-quarters of the way through, ending almost re-conciliatory, but not quite. On “Blood on the Tracks,” its original album, it was fantastic, with angry organ licks and hard-strummed guitar underpinning Dylan’s resentment and regret, and lines like “I waited for you on my running boards/near the cypress trees as the spring-time turned/slowly into autumn.” Here, however, it’s apparently too complex for the (stoned) band, and Dylan in particular, to pull off. He caterwauls, whoever’s playing rhythm guitar changes time signatures and adds and loses bars, and in general, it’s a musical disaster, the kind I’d stop and apologize for.

Conclusion:

It’s a great live album, one glaring moment of idiocy and a little filler notwithstanding. And I have to give it an extra point for teenage nostalgia. 6+1=7/10.

 


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The Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985)

This is going to be a hard one to write about… “Brothers in Arms” is one of the six or Image result for brothers in armsseven albums I must have in my collection at any given point. This puts it in a closed category with albums like War, Highway 61, Graceland, Court and Spark and So, albums that, in my mind, are masterpieces both musically and lyrically, with songs that I identify with on a personal level. I could go on and on! So rather than just gush about my favorite parts, I’m going to break this album down track by track and then talk about what I think is the album’s chief failing. 

The album opens with a comparatively short, straightforward rock track, “So Far Away from Me.” Here, singer Mark Knopfler pines to be near the object of his affections, but remains up-beat and melodic, if not actually catchy. It’s a solidly put-together cut, and it deserves more radio play.

Next, however, is the song most of us think of when we think of this album: “Money for Nothing.” I’d guess a lot of the popularity of this song is due to the catchy chorus and rather provocative lyrics, but truth be told, it really does have all the elements of a hit record. It opens with an ear-catching space rock segment (reminiscent of “Shine on, You Crazy Diamond”), which features guest vocalist Sting repeatedly crooning the line that has all but replaced the actual title: “I want my MTV.” With a heavy drum line, the song transitions into a vaguely ZZ Top-esque hard rocker, with Knopfler on lead vocals and Sting on backup. The singer laments his career choices, wishing he could get “money for nothing and chicks for free” like the singers and guitarists on MTV.

It is here that Knopfler makes one of the more regrettable decisions of the album: he spends an entire verse making fun of an unnamed rock-star for his supposed homosexuality and effeminate appearance. While Knopfler has distanced himself from the lyrics, saying that they represent the views of a character and not his own, it seems the lyrics came across as counter-progressive even at the time. I certainly think the song might have been stronger with an alternate verse. Who’s to say?

Still, it was built to be a hit, with solid guitar and synth arrangement, pop drums, and fun little details like Sting singing the line “I want my MTV” to the tune of his hit “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” in the background of the chorus. If it were the only strong track on the album, I might judge it harshly, but on an album like “Brothers,” it only has to bear its own weight. It holds up as an album cut.

(I almost wish this song had been in Dune, playing in the infamous scene where Sting’s character, Feyd-Rautha, steps forth Speedo-clad from a high-tech steam bath to watch his soldiers cooking a pig with cattle-prods, but I somehow doubt even David Lynch would go that far. Also, per Wikipedia, the film was made in ’83 and the song was recorded some time after it was released in ’84… Still, a fellow can dream.)

Next comes the other hit from the album, “Walk of Life.” It’s a blues-rock number with a catchy organ/synth line and lyrics about a struggling street musician, almost certainly identical to the title character of “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. It, too, earned its place on the charts, in my opinion, but it always felt a little light-weight, to me. I don’t know why; it has some great lines in the chorus. Still, I can’t help but overlook it, especially when I compare it to the next track.

“Your Latest Trick” opens with a sad, smooth-jazz saxophone line, which drops away as the song transitions into a slow rocker, remaining present but not over-powering in the background. In the verses, Knopfler shows his true colours as a folk musician after the pattern of Bob Dylan. Clever wordplay builds up some levity, but ultimately it’s a sombre, after-midnight in the city sort-of-ballad. Indeed, the sound of lashing rain hitting windows and walls is nowhere to be found in this song, but it is everywhere implied. If I were a DJ, it would be on my short-list of songs to play on rainy nights, together with “You Look Like Rain” by Morphine, “Invitation to the Blues” by Tom Waits, and a very few others. At any rate, it’s a fantastic track and it more than makes up for the excesses of the album to this point.

If “Your Latest Trick” spoke of insomnia, “Why Worry Now?” is a perfect cure, both in the sense that it is literally a lullaby, with comforting words and a gentle arrangement, and in the sense that it is light-weight, boring, and a minute or more too long. Still, as filler goes, the Straits could do worse. I’d prefer no filler at all, but that’s just me.

The latter half of the album begins with the sound of synthesized bamboo flutes and tribal drums. A less generous critic might call this arrangement an attempt at pushing the listener’s “intrigue button,” but I’ll withhold judgement for the moment. The song, “Ride Across the River” is the first of the war songs on “Brothers,” sung or rather half-spoken from the perspective of a revolutionary about to cross a river into enemy territory. One struggles to place it in Latin America, Central Africa, Korea, but the truth is, the song is general enough to be about all revolution, everywhere. It’s the kind of song U2 were writing around this time, as Apartheid and the developing world came onto the international scene in a big way. Knopfler has the most interesting way of sounding like Dylan “as he should have been.” At any rate, this song and the other two war songs on the album give it much of its universality and lasting appeal, a delicate consciousness of the human condition that  is impossible to fake.

“The Man’s Too Strong” grapples with similar ideas, but in a far more cryptic way. “I am just an ageing drummer boy,” the narrator informs us, “and in the wars I used to play.” Then he skillfully blindsides us with “And I have called the tune to many a torture session.” This song, more than the one before it, sounds like it’s about revolutions in Latin America, especially given the Catholic imagery, but who’s to say? There seems to be a narrative here, but it’s so heavily buried under cryptic lines about stolen diamonds and stolen pieces of silver that I can’t make heads or tails of it. The real shining moment to me is the abrupt dynamic shift in the chorus after the line “the man’s too big, the man’s too strong,” but it can’t really save the song from being too obscure.

“One World” is lightweight, a bunch of pseudo-Dylan moaning about the human condition that comes across as too blatant and bleeding-heart. It does have a couple of memorable lines, like “They say it’s mostly vanity that writes the plays we act; they tell me that’s what everybody knows.” It’s not bad for filler.

And finally we come to the title track, the third and final war song, dark, brooding and full of stormy 80’s synth and slow, clean blues licks. And it’s here that Knopfler really shows his talent as a songwriter, even more so than “Ride Across the River.” There’s a line here that is so startlingly strong and simple to me that I’m only surprised no one plucked it from the vine before 1985: “Now the sun’s* gone to hell, the moon riding high.”

(Or, continuing with messianic imagery from “The Man’s Too Strong,” “The Son.”)

But isn’t that line great? It takes something that literally happens everyday, and effortlessly colours it with strong emotion. How many songwriters must have kicked themselves in ’85 for never having thought of “the sun’s gone to hell?” The only other single line I can compare it to for emotional effect is David Bowie’s “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” And it goes on like that. As the ageing soldier thanks his comrades and laments that they had to fight at all, Knopfler gets in a few more gems, like “it’s written up in the stars, and every line in your palm.”

But now that I’ve covered the album with dripping praise, I have to talk about its tragic flaw. There exists what we call “the 80’s sound,” more so than for any other decade before or since, though the 90’s and the 00’s are close runners-up in this department. Instantly dated digital synth, hi-gloss sound production and plastic-sounding drums say 80’s rock in the same way that heavily compressed guitar lines with no dynamic range say 2000’s metal. Few of the greats of the era were exempt. U2 were not exempt on War, an apt comparison on a number of levels. On both albums, the drums sound like plastic toys. The studio drummer here gets away with it somewhat better than Larry Mullen Jr., perhaps because Mullen plays more histrionic fills and is generally mixed front-and-center. But where, oh, where are the full, thick, organic sounding drums of the 70’s? And the synths are lamentable. The midi pan-pipes on “Ride Across the River” in particular must have been badly dated ten minutes after the track was recorded. And the fact that this was literally the first album to be digitally recorded in full only solidifies my opinion: the mastering and production are trash.

Conclusion:

In summation, it’s a truly great album that’s unfortunately struggling to breathe through a film of shiny 80’s plastic. I have to give it an 8/10, though, and I don’t intend to give many of those.


 

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