Sunday Singles: The Left Banke — Pretty Ballerina b/w Lazy Day (1966)

Image result for pretty ballerina coverOne of the few Sunday Singles I’ve written so far that I don’t have on vinyl, this is a cute little number about going out with a pretty ballerina. Only the narrator leaves it ambiguous as to whether he’s just dreaming or not. It has that baroque chamber-pop sound that could get you on the charts in the mid-60’s, a sweet sentiment and a good melody. Supposedly it’s in “Apocalypse Now,” but hell if I remember that. I mostly remember the bald guy ranting about how the napalm threw off his surf, to be honest.

(Google turns up a bunch of results that all repeat the Wikipedia statement about the song being in the movie word-for-word, but give no details.)

The interesting thing is that, as much of a first-wave British Invasion song as this is, the band is actually American. I had them pegged for the kind of act that would have formed in Liverpool in the wake of the Beatles’ success.

The B-side is less familiar to me. It’s more of a psych-rock deal, and unknown 60’s psych-rock is always a treat to me. It’s about being a disaffected slacker, I guess. The fuzzy, right-panned lead guitar is a nice touch, such a crystalline moment of the character of the 60’s.

Which one wins? I tend to think the A-side, but you tell me!


All images found online and claimed under fair use, all content reviewed property of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Cobb never makes it out of the dream.

 

Sunday Singles: The Paupers — Cairo Hotel

Image result for paupers ellis islandIn the desire to update this more regularly, I’ve decided to revive a feature that I’d considered early on: every Sunday, I’ll recommend and briefly review both sides of an old seven-inch (or its modern equivalent.) One of my criteria will be that you can find them on YouTube and give them a virtual spin… I think it might be a great way to introduce people to new bands.

Today, I’d like to recommend a rather gonzo disc, from a failed Canadian psych-rock band from whom I’ve only ever heard these two songs.

From the album “Ellis Island,” their last, comes “Cairo Hotel,” a chamber-pop ballad about a man dying alone at Christmas-time. It’s a dark song, but I like it a lot. It has an existential sadness to it: “All his friends sat down to dinner/they agreed it was a shame… that the price of milk was going up again./They mentioned him in sympathy, then threw away his name/and they haven’t thought to mention it since then.” The refrain is nice, as is the baroque-style orchestral break.

“Pick us up, blow us round,” the singer asks the city wind, “but lead us to our rooms again.”

The B-side is a rather biting parody of 50’s and 60’s U.S. country music, “Another Man’s Hair on my Razor.” It’s pretty nicely constructed, a murder ballad where the narrator, a truck driver, gets home to find that someone else has been shaving with his razor… and he’s still there. “But the last stroke of the razor fell to me,” the refrain goes, which works in multiple ways, I think.

So which one wins? You tell me.


All images found online and claimed under fair use, all content reviewed property of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Ceterum censeo Charlie Puth esse delendam.

Blitzen Trapper — Destroyer of the Void, Pt. 1

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I’ve died a thousand times, found out what it means to be believed…

Let’s talk about dreams. I’m obsessed with them. You might have guessed that from previous reviews, or you might not. Mine are vivid, often rather coherent and set in a continuous, somewhat consistent world, as far as dreams can be consistent. I’ve seen dark things, roaming that dusty, empty world in a Jeep that I no longer own, and have not owned in decades, with people I barely know in the waking world beside me as my companions. I’ve killed the king and I’ve been him, played the hero and the villain, been a woman, to the extent that I know what that is, been a child again… and it was all meaningful, even if I didn’t always know what it meant.

(The trick to remembering your dreams is to keep a notepad by your bed and write them down first thing, by the way.)

So even if I were to believe (which I don’t) in the materialist view, which is to say, believe that nothing is supernatural, everything is physical and that mankind understands her environment* pretty well, I would still maintain that that other world was also real. Not “real” in the strictly materialist sense, which is to say, made of atoms or whatever, but real in the sense that it’s a substantial part of the human condition, a part of our reality. Modern psychology may have discounted dreams, but I still hold with Freud and Jung and the rest that dreams are deeply meaningful, a part of our existence that can enlighten and teach. Hell, at times I earnestly think that ideas are more real than things, in which event dreams take on every quality of reality except for  consistency and persistence.

It is by way of admitting my bias that I say all of this. Only a few bands and artists transport me to the world of dreams in waking life, and I love them all dearly, as one

LetThereBeMoreLight

Then, at last, the mighty ship, descending on a point of flame…

loves kin. Bob Dylan with his late 60’s psychedelic rambling was probably the first, and Peter Gabriel has certainly managed (though that brings up my yearning for the late 80’s when global activism and I were both in our primes), but the ones that take me there consistently are Blitzen Trapper and early-era Pink Floyd. I don’t write glowing reviews of early Floyd, because I feel like very few people would get it. My love for “Let There Be More Light” is grounded in the things I read and watched and the things I dreamed about in middle childhood, and I bet that, to most people, it’s just a silly song about aliens. To me, the bloom hasn’t rubbed off the idea of extraterrestrial life, and the idea of first contact… it still sounds like something that could happen and something that would be profound and moving. Hence, I love that damn song.

Image result for destroyer of the void

The Four-Eyed Cow of Doom

I guess I shouldn’t review Blitzen Trapper either by that token, but since I’ve already started this series, by gaw, I’ll see it through. Destroyer of the Void… well…

Like the moment when Julius Caesar brought his troops into the Roman Demilitarized Zone with the bated calm of a gambler rolling the dice, Destroyer was the end of an era, and by necessity, the beginning of a new one. Worse? Probably. Different, certainly.

So far, I haven’t been able to write a halfway decent review of this album, because there’s so much that was good and so much that was bad about it.

I’ve decided to review it in two parts, because it is a double album (though I tend to think they could have condensed it into a single LP without losing more than one or two songs), and more importantly because the two discs are different beasts altogether.

Destroyer is the most progressive of BT’s albums. Now, in a previous review, I compared prog-rock to “total art.” Ideally, it should be the full package–art, physical presentation, liner notes if possible, music and, finally, album-craft.

In the physical regard, the album does not really disappoint, I guess: the package of the vinyl edition (which I bought when I saw them live, my first and for a long time last piece of BT vinyl) is very handsome, with damn cool art both front and back, and inside the gatefold. There’re no liner notes, not that I typically miss them with BT. When an album does have them, it’s always frontman Eric Earley writing them, and maybe he should let somebody else do it. But then again, Bob Dylan has taught us that third-party liner notes can actually be worse: “In the end the plague touched us all…” What a load of hock. And to think that the man who wrote the liners to “Blood on the Tracks” also stood and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after the murder of RFK…

The vinyl is sturdy 180-gram or whatever it is that we’re all supposed to flip for now, which is to say about half-again as thick as, and far sturdier than, LP’s were when I got into them. I rather like the thick vinyl here, but sometimes it grates, and I do think they’re just as prone to skipping and warping. There’s cool custom labels, not standard Sub>Pop fare. (Does Sub>Pop even have standard labels for their vinyl? Beach House fans, can you tell me?)

I think it’s probably a damn waste of vinyl to press this on two discs. The album comes to about forty-seven or forty-eight minutes. They could have trimmed some ends of songs and gotten it on one disc. Who even cares about the fadeout? I guess that with fewer songs per side, you can have better groove spacing and so better dynamics, but with modern production you’re not going to get the rich 70’s-type of dynamic range anyways. You’re not shooting on film, baby…  Anyways, that’s not important; let’s get to the music.

I came upon Blitzen Trapper on YouTube around the time “American Goldwing,” the album after Destroyer, was released, so I started with Furr and Destroyer both readily available. I’d say that the two songs that got me into the band were the two title tracks of the two albums–worlds apart, to be sure, but two sides of the same coin*. The title track to Destroyer is six minutes long. It nods at Queen, Led Zeppelin and probably the Beatles without losing its originality. I appreciate that; it’s a brand new statement in the musical language of the 70’s, not blind aping imitation like those Greta Van Fleet punks. Grow up and get your own place, kids. More on that in a future review.

So what can we say about Destroyer? It’s a sci-fi ballad about some kind of “Space Cowboy”-esque hero who… does a thing. He destroys the void, I guess. I guess the void was eating the Earth, and he stopped it? But then he had to take his lover and run to another solar system.

…I swear, if you weren’t into this sh*t as a kid, you probably will never be. Space-rock for life.

Musically, it’s excellent, laid out in movements like a classical suite–first there’s an a capella section that introduces the title character, then there’s a rock section that sets up the romance angle, and then there’s the chaos break.

(How I love the Blitzen Trapper chaos break: you can see it in a lot of their songs around the three-quarter mark, like a solo where the instrument is whatever weird noises they can come up with on their recording hardware and whatever stock clips of movie dialogue and soundtrack they care to slip in under the surface, a la “Wish You Were Here.” It serves a lot of the same function as the guitar solo in a classic rock song: it’s the disintegration, where the tensions built up by the song are released in one burst before the last chorus.)

And then, like Satan in Paradise Lost*, the song wings its way uneasily out of Chaos, re-integrating into a vaguely Zeppelin-tinged hard-rock section in which we get the bulk of the narrative. The hero is tempted by a snake (Earley loves his Bible imagery), steals horses and then a spaceship, and takes his lover “to endless planets, worlds unknown.”

Then the coda hits, a McCartney-style piano ballad in which the narrator asks his lover if she’ll still love him in a million years, when Earth is gone, concluding with a recapitulation of the song’s first lines: “see this wayward son, boy/may you live to run another day.”

Actually, I’m not entirely sure that he’s not singing to a man, what with the “boy” in that second-to-last line, in the same verse as he addresses his lover. It’d be cross-type for Earley, at least as far as his writing to date goes, but his space cowboy character could be gay, I guess. I don’t know.

Image result for space western sci-fi book cover art

I’m the space cowboy/I think you know where it’s at.

Man, this is one thing I’m way into… space westerns and over-the-top sci-fi things. Silly, yeah, but consider what the late 70’s and early 80’s were like to grow up in. My brother and I were a little young to have gotten much of the run of He-Man, but we were reared on She-Ra and got into Gundam in the early 90’s when we were just the right age to appreciate it. Star Wars had some influence, I guess, and so did the cinematic Star Treks. So forgive me for a little nostalgia.

So is it a good song? Yeah, I think so, even if you don’t have the same nostalgia. It has a great vintage sound, but not the slavish devotion to the past that I come to detest. It’s a little overproduced, because the band seem a little insecure about the production values on Furr… or so Eric says in the liners to the Furr deluxe edition. 8/10.

Next is “Laughing Lover,” which but for one flaw would have been one of their great songs. It’s another “magical lover” song, like Earley likes to write. He shows his fascination with mysticism with lines like “Steal away the sun, the moon and stars/start simple with a woman’s voice,” which sounds like it’s about destroying and recreating the world, and “wisdom lingers on the fingers of the fortress/like a lazy ghost,” which is damn evocative even if it is probably meaningless. The band sound great, with a winding, serpentine guitar riff fuzzed the hell out. The band sound great up to a certain point.

It doesn’t rock. The drumming is a four-on-the-floor pop-country pattern, a drum pattern that, living in the rural South around fans of Luke Bryant and Florida-Georgia Line, I’m rather tired of. There’s only really one part of the song where a real back-beat comes in, and it’s too little, too late.  Not having a rock beat just kind of lets the air out of the whole dynamic. I still kind of like it, but it needs a beat more like the next song. 6/10

Next up is a song that draws a little on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Below the Hurricane.” At this point, Eric probably stops trying to make sense. It’s got a lot of mysticism and the lyrics, frankly, just sound nice. It’s about dark and mystical things happening on a dark and cold night out in the woods, I guess. Or I’m just projecting. Musically, it’s top-tier Blitzen Trapper. It has the only noticeable twelve-string guitar part on any Blitzen Trapper song I can think of, in an intro that’s pretty cool sounding. After the airy, acoustic A-section reaches its logical conclusion, another section starts, with a stripped-down, elemental sound and a “Heart of Gold”-type of back-beat and bass-line, not to mention a shimmering harmonica part and scattered piano that seems to drift in and out of the mix like it’s coming in from the next room. Unfortunately, Eric’s voice is rather shrill on this take. Really, it’s a very nice song, but every part of it could have been a little better, except for that intro. 6/10

On side two of disc one, we have “The Man Who Would Speak True,” another murder ballad in a very similar vein to the famous and enduring Black River Killer,” off Furr. In a way, it feels like a retread. But it’s a distinct song, despite the similar topic and the similar melody. In Killer, the killer is a mysterious, perhaps Satanic force that can possess anyone, a force that the song doesn’t really give any explanations about. Randall Flag? Nyarlathotep? Sure, let’s go with that. Whereas, in “The Man Who Would Speak True,” the man is explicitly possessed by his tongue. No, actually, it’s not his tongue, it’s a plant that has been grafted into his mouth, apparently as part of a necromantic ritual to raise him from the dead. Yeah, so to summarize a long story in a very few words, basically this dude is dead and a girl, “Grace,” digs him up with a jawbone, dresses him up and brings him back to life with this “green and a-growing plant.” So… he kills her and everyone else he meets, first with a gun and then by telling the truth to them, and eventually ends up turning himself in to a magistrate of a small town by the sea, who executes him by planting him in the sand at low tide. Or something. It draws a lot on old Appalachian murder ballads like “Little Sadie” aka “Bad Lee Brown.”

Whoa, dude. There’s a lot going on here. There’s a lot of characters doing a lot of things, by the standards of a three-minute song, and there’s also some weird moralizing or something. There’s even at least one gratuitous Grateful Dead reference. I think, in the final analysis, that it’s a Lovecraftian horror story, and like most of Lovecraft’s stories, Earley explains too much about the monster. If the BRK is Nyarlathotep, the plant-man is the Yith in “The Shadow out of Time:” he’s not horrifying, because we know so much about him. But then again, there are some great lines in this song, and if I can’t appreciate it as a horror story, I can appreciate it as a story, nonetheless (and this is my opinion of Lovecraft and of Shadow specifically, too.)

Musically, it’s a little slight, finger-picked guitar and snarling blues harmonica with Blitzen Trapper’s usual studio trimmings. I’m feeling a little generous because it is a song where a dude’s tongue is replaced by a plant, which possesses him and lets him kill people by telling the truth. In the immortal words of a wise old Buddhist I once knew, das f*cked up. 6.5/10.

Next is one of the least flawed songs on Destroyer, “Love and Hate.” One thing you might notice already is that the tone is all over the place, unlike Furr. “Love and Hate” is where the album almost starts to come together, though. It’s a song about being betrayed and dumped by your girl–one thing is that Eric can’t mess up the classics. This has been a topic of rock songs from the old days, and it gets a treatment at once familiar and fresh.

Yeah, Eric writes this as a fantasy story. It’s what he ended up being good at, in the end, and I can stand it. You might not be able to, so I will readily admit that this is a niche song on something of a niche album. The narrator sounds a little like Gandalf talking about the aftermath of his battle with the Balrog. “I wandered down through dusty towns/witness to the wars that rage within men’s minds.” I rather like it, lyrically speaking, but it’s no Furr or “Shoulder Full of You.”

Musically, it’s pretty great, with a vaguely Sabbath-influenced heavy metal sound (it’s definitely the most metal song they ever did) and a Doors-like overdriven organ solo that’s frankly one of the top ten things on the album. I wish Eric’s voice was a little better on it, and I probably wish it was a little less over-the-top, but its one of the closest things to classic BT on this album, tied with the title track and “The Man Who Would…” 7/10

Then there’s “Heaven and Earth,” which I never really liked. It’s more of Eric’s mysticism, but I can’t help but think it’s a fairly transparent discussion of the Christian church–whether from an inside or outside perspective, I don’t know. The refrain, a vaguely piratical “heaven and earth are mine, says I,” is so damn repetitive that I end up skipping the last third of it when listening on my computer. The music is vaguely ELO, with a simple, dark string arrangement that also grates. I give the last song on this disk a 4.5/10.

If I were to consider this disk as an EP, I’d say it was alright, with a weak song and a couple of good songs that weren’t perfect. Unfortunately, this disk is yoked together unequally with another… which is very different, barely the same album. You’ll see when we get to it. Either would be kind of alright on their own, but together it’s a long and annoying mess with a few zen moments.

So what went wrong between Furr and Destroyer? Notice that in other reviews I mention noise-rock influences a lot, and talk about the band. Now those influences seem almost gone, and one personality dominates, to the point that, writing this review, I find myself on a first-name basis with him where I wasn’t before. That is the enigmatic man they call Eric Earley, and on Destroyer, the band starts feeling a lot more like his solo project. I’m going to go ahead and tabulate the score for this disc, and then I’ll average the two together at the end of Part 2.

High Point: Destroyer
Low Point: “Heaven and Earth,” which seems fitting, as the whole album is a declining trend.
Whole Disc Average: 6.4/10
Overall score: TBD


*Mankind is a she, right? Countries are shes, ships are shes, airplanes under a certain tonnage… oh, I dunno.
*Or, times being what they are…
*Book II, if you’re interested. It’s one of the best parts.
All images claimed under fair non-commercial use. Fantasy art by the esteemed Rodney Matthews, found online. Contact me if you represent Rodney Matthews or the artist of the magazine cover and wish them to be taken down. All content reviewed is the property of its respective owners, all opinions mine. Stan Lee is in Valhalla.

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band — The Roaring Silence (1976)

So what is prog-rock, really?

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Don’t do drugs, kids.

Damn, genres are hard to define. Academics sometimes resort to listing… stuff that might or might not be identifiable features of a genre. Most of us just say “I know it when I see it.” Neither way really gives you a succinct definition.  Alt-rock? How can I say this? It’s rock that’s underground, or mainstream rock that sounds like that the stuff underground rockers make, or mainstream rock that sounds mainstream by people who used to be underground… I love you, Kurdt Cobain, but you really screwed up the definition of alt-rock for all time.

Prog-rock, however, is somewhat easier to define. In its classical incarnation, prog-rock is music from the 60’s and 70’s (and maybe the 80’s, but that gets into late prog) that pushed the boundaries of rock-and-roll in some specific ways: prog-rock was more open to longer songs, instrumental jamming, new instrumentation, and lyrics that explored philosophical themes, fantastic worlds. In this framework we began to see album-oriented rock for the first time, and more than that, we began to see stories told in all aspects of the album: lyrics, instrumentals, artwork, liner notes–this almost Wagnerian idea of “total art” was where narrative entered rock in a big way.

Why does this work for rock and not for, say, pop, folk or jazz? Because rock has always had a broad scope. Rock is about life. Rock, from its earliest days when blues and country came together, spoke about romance, work, sorrow, religion, travel and everything else a human life contains, in the language of sex and dancing. Why? Because sex and dancing are not only ubiquitous, but work as metaphors for nearly everything else (as well as each other).

Prog-rock came at precisely the moment that talented rockers were both educated enough and stoned enough to realize that the frontiers of rock were, by their very nature, wide open. Its predecessor, acid rock, led naturally to the frontier, and prog-rock forged ahead from there.

So it’s a genre that a lot could be said about, and, because reviewers tended to shaft prog-rock at the time, it’s a genre that not enough has been said about…. he says, trying to convince himself that he’s not wasting time on Monday night.

So today we’re looking at an unappreciated prog-rock classic, one that most of us know only because it produced its band’s greatest hit, a rather bizarre cover of what had been a mediocre Bruce Springsteen song called “Blinded by the Light.”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s seventh album is a hideous, hideous package. It’s a big ear with a little mouth inside it. Why didn’t they learn from the hideous mess that was Floyd’s Meddle album cover? Ears aren’t good cover art, people. This album, at least, is a disappointment in the “total art” department.

But then you slip out the shiny black disc and put it on the phonograph and it acquits itself moderately well, with some glaringly bad moments and some soaring moments, a disc to encapsulate the entire range of its genre from “bloody awful garbage” to “WHOOOO YEAH MOTHER****ERS.”

Let me sober up. (No, I’m not actually high on anything in particular, just naturally a total clown.) The album opens with the aforementioned “Blinded by the Light,” an organ-driven jam on what had been a rather weird Springsteen song. (And yes, Springsteen was weird early on. Every really listened to “Born to Run?”Blinded is a song about being a teen rebel on the early rock and roll scene, complete with light-hearted references to teen sex, masturbation, vandalism and drug use. I like either version alright, but the Earth Band’s version has a better melody, sometimes aided by lyrics changed somewhat to fit the rhythm.

(But yes, as everyone likes to joke about, the singer, Chris Thompson, pronounces “deuce” as “douche.”)

It’s got some nice solos from the guitarists and the headliner himself, Manfred Mann on organ. He even does Chopsticks on the long edit! I find that oddly endearing. While the song is really not that special (and it might not even stand on its own as prog), instrumentally, it gives a good taste of what the band is capable of. I especially like the singers singing the verses as a round at the end. Watch out for this little idea; it comes back. 7.5/10.

But if I took points off the other ear album (or “earlbum”) I mentioned earlier just for containing the abomination “San Tropez,” you know I’m going to be hard on this album for containing “Singing the Dolphin Through,” Mother of Harlots and Abominations. No one can be told what this song is, Neo. You have to hear it for yourself.

Actually, this is pretty funny now that I look at the lyrics. It’s… very British. It’s about two guys going on a head trip and/or making music because Plymouth, England is so violent and depressing. “Singing the Dolphin Through” is short for “singing the Dolphin through still waters;” do they propel their craft by singing? And more importantly for the purposes of this review, do I… do I like this song? Escapism works on me, it’s safe to say. You may find this song too silly, as I did before I looked closely at the lyrics, and may well hate it as I did.

Musically, it’s pretty great, with female backup singers, more synth, more organ, a little saxophone solo… it’s the first definitely prog song on the album, musically as well as lyrically.

I swore I’d do more reviews of albums I don’t love. But I guess I like this one more than I’d remembered. Alright, “Dolphin” gets 7/10 because I’m feeling very generous just now.

Oh, yes, it isn’t even Dolphin that I hate. It’s “Waiter, There’s a Yawn in my Ear.” This thing… Oh, God, this thing. I just remember it having stupid lyrics, really and totally stupid.

So I have the album on as I’m writing, of course, and I’m just getting to “Waiter” now. The intro is pretty cool… Man…

Wait, is this an instrumental? And is that synthesizer real? Can it exist in our dimension? How many PhD’s did it take to program such a thing? And in what subject(s)? Is a mile of patch-cord involved?

And wait, what did I hate again? Was I just that closed-off to Dolphin? Was it the song I was thinking of? Am I gushing again? This review isn’t going the way I wanted it to. I wanted to prove that I’m not just gushing about albums I like. I purposely chose an album that had a couple of songs I could sink my teeth into. And now, boots on the ground, my plan has fallen apart in the face of the enemy. Plans do that, I guess. 7/10.

So the next song was going to be my absolute standout, the deep-cut that made the groaners kinda worth it. But now I’m not sure there ever were any groaners. “Road to Babylon” begins with the female singers from earlier singing “Waters of Babylon,” a round composed by Phillip Hayes in the Classical era based on the 137th Psalm. Some of us might have learned it in Sunday school as children; I personally didn’t but I know people of much the same upbringing as myself who did. Simple text, effective text: it’s a lament for the lost city of Jerusalem, from the perspective of Jews who have been led into captivity in Babylon. Combined with an effective and elegant contrapuntal melody, it makes a beautiful piece of music on its own; particularly brilliant is the fact that “for thee, Zion” in the first voice coincides with “of Babylon” in the second voice, making the dichotomy ever so poignant. And then the band come in and take it off the rails. Drums and guitar enter, the choir fades out, and Thompson leads with the pith of a new story; a story of mind-control, evil sorcery and death along the “road to Babylon.” “A golden helmet blinded minds,” the opening line goes, “among ten thousand swords along the road to Babylon.”

Some minds are like that when sober (if they can ever be said to be sober), and some minds would have to be stoned off their asses to write such a story. I don’t know which is the case here, but if you like fantasy it’s a song to blow your mind. It’s some high-concept stuff, and if you’re open to it, it’s a great song, with a great sound and great overall composition, with a gospel-esque “well, well, well” in the backing voices as a key motif. At intervals, the melody of “Waters of Babylon” returns, before a recapitulation at the three-quarters mark. If the band had needed to prove their literacy in terms of classical form, they would have been surplus to requirement, so to speak.

Not everyone is going to dig such a high-concept prog-rock song, but I have to give it a good rating on technical ground, if on nothing else: 8/10.

And then “Road to Babylon” abruptly stops, and a little bell starts ringing. It’s the intro to “This Side of Paradise.” This is a fairly slight and idyllic little number, about a tropical paradise on Earth. I like it okay. The intro is annoying. 6/10.

Starbird was the B-side to “Blinded by the Light,” there called “Starbird #2” for whatever reason. I guess on my first listen I assumed it was a cover of the theme-song to another of those 70’s puppet-based sci-fi shows like Thunderbirds. It begins with Chris Thompson and Manfred Mann (I think) singing in a round, once again. The lyrics are an ode to some sort of heroic creature, the Starbird.” “Starbird, you can fly me, take me everywhere you go…” and the melody will be familiar to Yes fans as an excerpt of a theme from Stravinsky’s Firebird score, which they played a recording of as the overture to many of their famous 70’s concerts, for instance at the beginning of Yessongs. You know, like how Metallica play “The Ecstasy of Gold?”

Then there’s an instrumental breakdown that owes a lot to Billy Preston’s instrumental “Space Race,” which was one of the very first records I ever owned, and which some of the older generation will fondly recall hearing whenever Bandstand had technical difficulties. Weigh the two together and Starbird will be found wanting, instrumentally speaking, but it’s a cool instrumental on its own. At the end, the a capella A-section gets recapitulated. 6/10; brevity certainly works in this little guy’s favor.

“Questions…” Ah, yes, this is the one that grates on me. It’s about going in a dream to speak to beings of great wisdom, who tell you that the answers are within you all along. Stop pandering to me! 6/10, but it missed being a 5 by having a catchy melody, which is taken from a light composition by Schubert.

So do I like the album? Hell yes. I can’t stay mad at Questions or Starbird, even, much less Yawn or “Singing the Dolphin Through.”

Highest Point: “Waters of Babylon”
Lowest Point: Questions
Whole Album Average: 6.8/10
Bonus for mind-blowing synth throughout: 1.0
Penalty for being good when I wanted to write a bad review: I guess I can’t penalize for this.
Penalty for being a little light on original content: -0.5
Overall Score: 7.3/10


All images found online and claimed under fair use, all content reviewed is the property of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Johnny Cash was the first American to know about Stalin’s death.

Blitzen Trapper — Black River Killer EP

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I can’t tell, but I think that he’s shining a flashlight at the Furr album cover.

So yeah, I never shut up about this band. Friends like them okay or despise them, often citing frontman Eric Earley’s voice as a negative factor, but I have always had a sort of resonance with them. (No, not vice versa. It makes no sense to say a band resonates with you. The converse is, however, apt on a number of levels: You’re the thing being moved and they’re the thing doing the moving.) I’m reviewing them not to gush about a band I like, but to chart the rise and fall of what I regard to be one of the great alt bands of a generation.

So Furr is “peak Blitzen Trapper,” so to speak. The “Black River Killer” EP is a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut to become part of Furr as well as one song that did. I’m always tempted to lump the two together as one sort of musical moment, but to be honest, BRK EP has more in common with Blitzen Trapper’s other more fan-oriented releases, like the Waking Bullets EP or their singles. It’s songs that wouldn’t work in an album context, much like the tracks from the failed album that Waking Bullets supposedly represents or the singles that were never meant to be on an album. Still, it’s a good spin.

The title track opens the EP, but I don’t really feel like reviewing it again, since it was on Furr. I do note that, as per the interview in the liner notes of the Furr deluxe edition I just got, the character of the Black River Killer is supposed to be a little like the Shining: a supernatural force that possesses innocent (?) men and drives them to kill. I suppose I should have known that from the lyrics, and maybe I did, but maybe hearing it from the horse’s mouth changed it from a half-formed guess to a palpable fact. But Eric notes that the character of the killer is also inspired by the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” I don’t really remember that book, but I’m not sure how that gels with the other thing. Then again, Eric might’ve been stoned when he said that, and was definitely trying to impress the celebrity interviewing him (Rainn Wilson of “The Office” fame.)

It’s a good song, with calm fingerpicked guitar underscoring a retro synth hook. I think I said last time that that’s a combination only Blitzen Trapper would think of, but then again, I suppose ELP’s “Lucky Man” prefigured it to some extent, way back at the beginning of the synthesizer era. 6/10, but only so low because it sticks out like a sore thumb here.

Next comes the hard-rocking, harmonica-driven “Silver Moon.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the reasons you came, even if you didn’t know it. This is rock and roll in its primal, true form, at only one remove, one reflection, from the Platonic Ideal of Rock And/Or Roll. It has a driving, battering back-beat, all the classical rock instruments (drums, bass, guitar, harmonica, piano and vocals) and synthesizer besides, with lyrics about a young couple doing as they please and then having to run from the girl’s father, but told with the mystical reverence for romance and, frankly, sex, that has been a key component of rock and roll from nigh on its conception in the mid ’30’s in Mississippi. “Fresh from the flash of the threshing room floor” should sound awkward, risky, unfulfilling and itchy (I’m a country boy and remember those days of my life well), but it captures all of the glow of the thing and none of the rash. 9/10, because I don’t give 10’s except for the top tier of the top tier.

Remember, kids, condoms and don’t do it in the hay or you’ll regret it all day.

Next is a cryptic song,Going Down.” There’s a narrative but I can’t really understand it. There’s something about espionage (“Loose lips sinkin’ ships tonight,” which is exactly the kind of literate reference that makes Eric’s songwriting so impressive to me), and something about jumping out of a plane with a sabotaged chute, which would make an interesting story if it weren’t essentially an aborted song. I can’t tell if he even dies when he hits the ground. There’s just not enough to this song, unlike Blitzen Trapper’s great war song, “Fire and Fast Bullets.” Musically, it’s standard BT single fare, nothing that impressive. I almost like the line “this girl’s a cluster of ripe grapes,” but then again that’s actually kind of gross. What does that make me think of, though? Echad eshkowl enab…? Still, it’s incomplete work: 5/10, see me after class.

 

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Queen Mab, my Dear

“Shoulder Full of You” is “Twin Peaks” material (that’s “Stranger Things” material for the younger generation), and it’s also incredible. I don’t know what “I got a shoulder full of you” means, but I know what “they saw you flying down/from forest park/on a broken ten-speed bike” means. I recognize this type of character. It’s a love song to some kind of fey being, a being from a third realm outside creation, neither heaven nor hell but older and more natural than either, the sort of being that steals children and replaces them with changelings in the old stories–Björk’s species, in short.* Eric Earley steps into the role of Thomas Rhymer with enthusiasm, having his narrator sing of a deep love for this elvish woman that is touched with melancholy, “like a blacksmith’s sorrow.” There’s even something of the old legend in the way he sings “I’ll kiss you” like it’s a momentous decision–in the old legends, if you kiss the fairy queen you’re pretty much hers for life. That’s your life, not hers, by the way–a thousand years is a blink of the eye to the fair folk.

God, I love folklore. You see this story in the old Border ballads from central Britain, in at least one of the Lais of Marie de France, in Irish legends about Oisin… The Silver Chair… I actually did a paper on this stuff in college, back when I could smoke a Swisher in five minutes without throwing up, when the girls in the English program were easy if you spoke their language… when the autumn leaves were still a symbol of the fall of man…

Whoo… I’m still wrecked among heathen dreams, I guess.

I’d argue that the woman in this song is the same as the woman in “Lady on the Water” on Furr, the immortal lover who can bless or curse, and probably “Laughing Lover” on the next album, Destroyer.

Musically, it’s a pretty minimalist song, which is a new look for Blitzen Trapper. It’s pretty much just fingerpicked guitar, scattered piano and melodica. Normally, when they do a song like that, there’s some synth padding to it, like on Lady. The texture somehow puts me a little mindful of “Pink Moon,” which is never a bad thing. 8/10; I took a point off for tantalizing me with generals and not going into specifics.

“Preacher’s Sister’s Boy” is also pretty mystical. I actually wrote the current lyric sheet for this song on at least one of the major lyrics sites, and I don’t know what he’s saying on at least one line. We’re still in the world of folk-tales and myths here, and nor will we leave it on the rest of the EP.

I asked one of the wisest old fogeys I know what this damn song meant, and all he could say was isn’t ‘the preacher’s sister’s boy’ Jesus Christ?” I have no clue. Yes, in point of fact, Jesus’ mother was the sister-in-law of a priest, according to… Saint Luke, I think. Don’t hold me to it. But as to what’s actually going on in this song? I mean, yeah, the Christian angle works as well as any other theory, only that would make the girl in the song Simon Peter, who would not stay awake in the garden while Jesus prayed in at least one of the gospels, if I remember right. That kinda works, I guess: “Came out to find my best friend sleeping somewhere with the stars…” and  “Stay and pray with me, baby, till the archangel comes…” I note that Eric can’t pronounce “archangel” to save his life. But I went to high school in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Mississippi, and I grow weary of trying to find a christological reading for every single narrative. I’m looking at you, Ms. Meador.

It’s not at all clear cut. Only Eric Earley and God know what this song is about, and maybe only God.

Musically, it’s pretty good, with a cool synth riff and a rocking back-beat. 6/10: points deducted for not being able to say words right.

Certainly, no one knows what the deal is with “Black Rock.” It’s basically more of Shoulder. It has some good lines, like “Climbing black rock/Life like flintlock…” and minimalism sure looks good on this band. 7/10: too vague, but very beautiful.

The EP closer, “Big Black Bird,” flies in “Wild Mountain Nation” airspace. That’s the song, not the album. It has a riff with the same classic roots-rock quality, lyrics about belonging to a mystical tribe (“rambling clan gather on the strand/shaking their feet and stomping in the sand…”), and I think they’re even about the same length, but this doesn’t feel like a retread of the older song. For one thing, this one feels a little happier and less contemplative; I might even like it a little better. I wish, like every song on this EP except for the first, and like the EP as a whole, that it was longer. I’d play this song on air constantly if I DJ’d a college rock station.. (And for that matter, I happen to know through my wires that the instrumental track for this song predates the release of “Wild Mountain Nation.”) A side note: the song has a bridge that goes “round and round, round it goes/where it’s gonna stop, ain’t nobody knows.” While this is a cute reference to a very old gambling game some of us have lost large sums of money at, it became a very irritating line when the band decided to take it literally, when I saw them live in Atlanta. They must have repeated it a dozen times and stretched the song out to in the vicinity of six times its original length! Anyways, it’s a great song. 8/10.

And it’s a good EP, and at one time it was certainly my favorite Blitzen Trapper release; but then again, so was Destroyer… This is part of the last truly transcendent era in Blitzen Trapper’s long and sad history. It’s all downhill from here, I’m afraid.

High Point: Don’t make me choose
Low Point: “Coming Down.”
Whole EP average: 7.0/10
Bonus point for flirting with the real deep-water stuff, folklore and legends and things: 1.0
Penalty for being too damn short, even for an EP: -0.3
Final score: 7.7/10

 


* Lorde probably belongs to the fair folk as well. Doesn’t she live in a crumbling palace in dreamland and call the moon her brother and shit? And look how she dresses. She can steal my firstborn any time.
(No, not really, Jake, if you ever read this, kiddo.)
All images claimed under fair use, all content reviewed the properties of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Aliens are behind you, personally, right now.