I blame that damn Volkswagen commercial with the nice old Irish lady and her family. Or maybe it’s a hangover from a certain Vermont senator’s 2016 campaign. But Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” has been absolutely stuck in my head for weeks now. And so I’m going to inflict it on you, as well, in an attempt to exorcise it from my ear canal
Obviously it’s a gorgeous 1960s classic redolent of complex youthful emotions, lyrics that effortlessly paint a detailed and profoundly human mise en scène and lifted skyward by those patented soaring S&G harmonies. There’s even a very George Harrison-like guitar sound in there rendered instead by Larry Knechtel’s Hammond organ, as well as Hal Blaine’s thundering drums, giving what could otherwise be a straight forward folk ballad complexity, texture and heft. Essentially it’s a perfect single where the words seamlessly dovetail with the music — “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” — and one that profoundly captures the troubled, fraying zeitgeist of 1968 America. I just hope that by finally posting it I’ll be rid of this masterpiece in my mind’s ear for a while. Sorry if it infects you in the process but it has to be done!
The sad and shocking news that Chris Cornell, founder and frontman of both Soundgarden and Audiosoave and one of the most gifted rock vocalists of his generation, has died at the age of 52 is still reverberating around the music world. He was found dead in his hotel room in Detroit on May 17th while on tour with his re-formed original band, the great grunge pioneers from Seattle, an apparent suicide. Cornell’s loss as an individual and his loss to rock music as a whole is hard to fully process. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.
Searching With My Good Eye Closed – Badmotorfinger (1991)
Unlike their local peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with whom they are most closely grouped, Soundgarden was less true “grunge” than an extension of classic 70s hard rock, albeit with sophisticated lyrical themes and innovative musical techniques. While initially satirizing the over-the-top nature of metal at the time they began in the late 80s — see “Big Dumb Sex” for the apotheosis of this in your face, on the nose send-up of hardcore metal misogyny — Soundgarden quickly graduated to a more lyrically complex, more darkly psychedelic metal sound that was uniquely their own. Their real breakthrough was Badmotorfinger, one of the seminal albums of the 90s in any genre. A borderline concept album, Badmotorfinger was inestimably weird and powerful, featuring guitarist Kim Thayil’s patented Drop D tuning on several hard-hitting classics like “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined,” the soaring & ominous “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and the punishing and mystical “Room A Thousand Years Wide.” Another track from this awesome album, “Mind Riot,” seemed to point in the direction that Cornell and the band would take in future: hard-edged, certainly, but with an almost ballad-like emotional intensity and strikingly original lyrics of searching strangeness and loss.
I was crying from my eye teeth and bleeding from my soul
And I sharpened my wits on a dead man’s skull
I built an elevator from his bones
Had climb to the top floor just to stamp out the coals (I’ve been caught in a mind riot)
Candle’s burning yesterday
Somebody’s best friend died
I’ve been caught in a mind riot
Mind Riot – Badmotorfinger (1991)
After the explosion of Grunge as a distinct genre onto the national scene, fueled by their own success and that of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees among others, Soundgarden followed up Badmotorfinger with an even bigger hit, Superunknown. The new album was characterized by a subtle shift away from pure heavy metal and more emphasis on mystical guitar driven psychedelia. Propelled by the huge MTV hits “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” the album also featured other classics like the title track and the propulsive “My Wave.”
Superunknown – Superunknown (1994)
The band also honed their penchant for extreme pessimism with the beautiful downers “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Like Suicide” and the very heavy “Mailman” and “4th of July.” Continue reading →
This old Big Country song from their remarkable Steeltown album way back in 1984 has been going through my head on repeat to start 2017. The late, great Stuart Adamson certainly had a way with a socially conscience anthem.
Aside from the more charismatic elements of the subject it definitely reminds me of someone today. Can’t quite put my finger on it but it’ll come to me, I’m sure…
There are bands that are really good but that are destined either by bad luck or the fickle tastes of the music-buying public to never quite make it to the top. Professionally accomplished, critically acclaimed, yes, but big sellers, never. Teenage Fanclub is one of those bands. The Scottish group started full of promise way back in 1990 and has released just under a dozen albums. They’ve seen critical success based on an enchanting reworking of the power pop of the past from their key influence, Big Star, mixed with folk rock textures and angelic harmonies inspired by the Byrds. They’ve seen big label contracts and heavy cross Atlantic buzz. But they’ve never seen big sales, as their sort of classic soft rock was just completely out of step with the prevailing trends in pop during their peak years.
Which is a shame because a song like “It’s All In My Mind” from 2005’s Man-Madeis simply a stunner with insanely catchy hooks that make you want to hear it over and over. Unashamedly pretty but leavened somewhat by a sardonic, mature, bittersweet feel to the lyrics, “It’s All In My Mind” is an excellent jumping off point to get to know Teenage Fanclub. And after hearing this near-perfect single you’ll likely want to explore more of their back catalog, as I did. What you’ll find is many more beautiful tracks, once again proving that mass market success in music is not at all correlative to quality or excellence. But then sometimes it’s nice to be one of the select few in on a secret like Teenage Fanclub that’s hiding in plain sight.
I sometimes feel that Bruce Springsteen is a victim of his own popularity as well as his perceived New York/New Jersey-ness, often dismissed these days as more of an institution than great artist, a touring extravaganza for nostalgic old East Coasters. But the length and breadth of his musical accomplishments places him firmly in the realm of the greats of Rock, somewhat so obviously that, like a certain type of Hall of Fame athlete, you take him for granted until you start revisiting his oeuvre. I consider him part of the Big 3 of 1970s power pop singer-songwriters along with Tom Petty and Bob Seger, all artists of great integrity and short story-like lyrical brilliance who also share the same talent of being able to surround themselves with phenomenal backing bands.
On 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, recorded two years before the breakthrough smash Born To Run, you can hear the young Springsteen growing by leaps and bounds and handily shedding the “New Dylan” moniker/trap that weighed heavily on so many talented artists in the 70s. The album contains the all-time concert fav “Rosalita” among several other standouts. But it’s the semi-title track, “The E Street Shuffle,” that gives a glimpse of the future for The Boss in terms of lyrical dexterity in painting a vibrant, multi-character milieu with a now-effortless rush of impressionistic words in contrast to the somewhat self-conscious overwriting of his debut Greetings From Asbury Park. Just as importantly, the track is the fullest realization yet of what would become the E Street Band’s trademark ultra-propulsive interplay between rhythm, melody and a big band sound that would lead to so many smash hits in the very near future.
The fully integrated sound that would lead Born To Run to such great musical heights is in full swing on “E Street Shuffle” with dazzling percussion, horns led by the dearly missed Clarence Clemmons’ big barroom sax and oddball instruments like a very wet and bouncy electric piano, as well as sizzling switches between Springsteen’s funk-inflected rhythm guitar and his incisive leads (the great Steve Van Zandt had not yet joined the band). Starting with a brief New Orleanian horn tune up, the song winds up being four and half minutes of unbridled joy and ecstatic catharsis, a tune about a party in the streets that sounds like a party in the studio. That there is a false ending and the last 50 seconds or so goes out with a nearly Isley Brothers-ish, oh-so-early-70s waketcha-waketcha boogie down guitar and horns orgasm makes this kick-ass track all the better.
“The E Street Shuffle” shows Springsteen and the E Street Band very near the peak of their rapidly developing powers as crafters of great American narrative Rock ‘n Roll. The characters spring to life with muscular, impressionistic lyrics, a Springsteen hallmark that would only become magnified with time. And the genuine ebullience and optimism of “E Street Shuffle” would be carried over and amplified on Born To Run but then begin to quickly fade into something much more pessimistic about the broken promises of the American dream with the edgier Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the very sad, downtrodden The River, the misunderstood, highly disillusioned Born In The USA and then the utter despair of Nebraska. Revisiting “The E Street Shuffle” it’s nice to hear a young Bruce and his compatriots healthy, vibrant and bursting at the seams with joy. All the more so because, just like most things in life, that spirit of unbridled optimism wouldn’t last.
As a bonus, here is a pretty friggin’ great live version from 2012 in Denmark where Bruce & the band are joined by the Roots for a good ol’ fashioned block party sing-a-long. From all the miles he’s traveled and the ups and downs he’s been through, The Boss’s enthusiasm for performing and collaborating still shines though and it’s clearly infectious even on an entirely new generation of musicians. The energy the two bands are giving each other while sharing the stage is a joy to behold.
2016 has officially become one of those singularly awful periods in Rock history, like 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a single plane crash. Or that fateful stretch from 1970 to 1971 when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all OD’d. Continuing this year’s traumatic trend, the world lost the whirlwind musical talent known as Prince this past Thursday, April 21st. The Purple One joins his fellow chameleonic, gender-bending artist David Bowie, as well as Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey among the colossal figures in the Rock pantheon who’ve passed away this year. (Another we lost in 2016 is fabled Beatles producer George Martin, who thankfully lived to the ripe old age of 90).
It’s easy to forget with the passing of time what a controversial figure Prince was when he broke onto the scene in the early 1980s. But then, with album titles like Dirty Mind and Controversy he made it clear he was courting it. It was the Reagan era, a promised return to straight-laced, wholesome American values after the free-love 1960s and the if-it-feels-good-do-it pre-AIDS 1970s. Yet here was this diminutive, light skinned African American emerging fully formed from Minneapolis of all places, dressed like an English dandy and singing some of the dirtiest come-ons ever put to vinyl. A wonderfully unusual lover man — handsome yet pretty, satyr-like but delicate and petite with his pencil thin mustache, long hair and soft speaking voice belying his powerfully expressive singing style — it wasn’t hard for the manly men and hair metal rockers to make fun of Prince. Except that while they and their buddies were down at the local watering hole drinking Buds and listening to Slayer, Prince was systematically bedding their women and bringing those lucky ladies to previously undreamed of paroxysms of ecstasy.
With his utterly unique musical gift for passionate eclecticism, effortlessly blending Soul, R&B, Funk and Rock into one heady hedonistic potion with which to intoxicate listeners, he wasn’t just upsetting to uptight macho guys or self-appointed moral police like Tipper Gore’s dumb Parent’s Music Resource Center. Prince was downright revolutionary, challenging the established musical order of that era. A light-skinned black dude who could shred on guitar like a latter day Hendrix or Ernie Isley while simultaneously promising to ravage America’s daughters of all colors — was he an R&B/Funk sensation or a crossover artist like Michael Jackson, another rare performer who couldn’t be contained or labeled by the then-prevailing radio segregation between “R&B,” “Pop” and “Rock”? Was he just a borderline obscene libertine provocateur or in fact a sensitive sensualist poet-prophet for a new generation? The answer to all of those and many more questions about Prince was invariably Yes.
Prince was aided and abetted in his cross-cultural takeover by the coincidental rise of an even greater societal force, MTV, becoming one of the budding video network’s omnipresent early stars with his seminal (literally) video for the double-entendre filled “Little Red Corvette.” 1984 saw the culmination of Prince’s conquest with the spectacularly popular, semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain, the massively successful album of the same name and its host of high-charting hits, not least of them the gospel-infused title track, which became as close to a theme song as the ever-changing Prince ever had (or maybe it was really “Dirty Mind”). As someone who went to that movie upon its initial release in a small-town theater while away at school, I can testify to Purple Rain‘s impact on a bunch of horny teenaged white kids, even if today we might look back and see nothing much more than a long form video with a typically 80s outsider-makes-good storyline. With the United States still very much on Cold War footing with the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation pervading the darkest corners of our young minds, when Prince sang “We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause/We’re all gonna die!” on “Let’s Go Crazy” it was pure catharsis. Not to mention a fine excuse to live it up to the fullest right freaking now.
If Prince would never achieve those Olympian heights again his place in the pop music firmament was nonetheless firmly enshrined. He dabbled with Bowie-esque gender bending, as on the especially erotic yet thoroughly empathetic “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” He went through backing bands like Kleenex and collaborated with other artists with a similarly hyperactive drive, writing hit songs for the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Nicks and many others, while also shepherding new acts like Vanity, Bria Valente, Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E. He split from his record label, self-released his music and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, then returned to a major label and started using Prince again. All the while, as he cranked out a ton of amazing music with or without further chart success, it was clear that he was not only his own unique phenomenon but also the spiritual heir to all those great musicians who merged the sacred with the profane, from the Delta bluesmen to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Rick James. In the process he created an unsettling, stimulating, booty shaking mix of something close to sexual Gospel music for the modern age.
Most of all, Prince refused to be pigeonholed. He was simply the greatest singer/producer/arranger/guitar player/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and showman of his time, the fantastic culmination of 20th century African-American music in one diminutive, hyperkinetic package. In the end there was no one like him, before or since. The purple light’s gone out all too prematurely. But we can thank the heavens for his tragically brief but utterly amazing 57 years on this humdrum planet. Because the eternal soul of Prince will always be here to guide us, his dearly beloved mere mortals, and help get us through this thing called life.
Once in a while I like to compare the same really good song done by two really good artists. In rare cases, you can get several versions that all work in different ways. Four is pretty unprecedented but In this case it’s warranted. Because the song in question is the reflective, melancholy Jackson Browne classic, “These Days.” Logically, most of us tend to think of the great singer-songwriter’s own version as THE version. It was released on his second album, 1973’s For Everyman, with a beautifully clean and relatively spare arrangement, highlighting Browne’s distinctively straightforward and non-self pitying vocals as they play against the very sad lyrics and the evocative guitar solos.
But Browne’s years as a teenage songwriting prodigy meant that this was not, in fact, the recorded debut of “These Days.” That honor would go to the enigmatic German artist, Nico, most famous for strangely yet appropriately taking lead vocals on 3 tracks for the Velvet Underground’s debut album (at Andy Warhol’s insistence). When Nico went solo for her 1967 album, Chelsea Girl, there was “These Days” with then-lover Jackson Browne on acoustic guitar, no less, and six years before he would get around to recording it for himself. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tannenbaums, you’ll know this version, where Nico’s trademark Teutonic non-emotive, not-really-singing seems to fit the bittersweet, offbeat comedy of that great movie.
More cover versions would not be confined to the past, though. Like few other songs in Rock, “These Days” was certified catnip for different artists’ interpretations. No sooner had Browne recorded his own version of the song, putting Nico’s in the rearview, than Gregg Allman almost simultaneously released a version for his 1973 solo debut album, Laid Back. In truth, Allman had helped Browne with his For Everyman arrangement so it seems only fair that the Southern Rock god would get to interpret it his way. Allman’s take was so good, with his trademark weeping guitar and the stoically resigned double-tracked vocals, that Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone called it “the definitive version” of the song, better even than the songwriter’s own. High praise indeed, even if Mr. Browne and his die-hard fans might disagree.
However, DeCurtis’s declaration predates another very fine version of “These Days” that I’m especially fond of. Paul Westerberg of Replacements fame covered it for his excellent 2003 solo album, Come Feel Me Tremble, speeding it up a bit from the song’s traditional dirge-like pace, adding a loping, almost dobro like guitar in place of the standard 1970s country-rock flatpicking and playing against a nicely chugging rhythm section for momentum.
I think the interesting thing about Westerberg’s version compared to the other three, aside from his trademark ugly-beautiful, slightly wobbly and cigarette-damaged vocals, is that Paul was much older than the other three when he came to record this classic song of regret and resignation. Amazingly, Browne claims to have written “These Days” at the age of 16 (!), so his intense evocation of adult setbacks and heartbreak is precocious in the extreme. By the time he got around to recording it, Browne was still only 25. Allman was likewise a young man of 26 and even the eternally gloomy Nico was only 29 or so. Obviously Rock years are not like regular human years and you could say that even in their mid or late 20s this was a trio of old souls. In fact, Allman had lost his brother Duane and another bandmate, Berry Oakley, the year prior to tackling “These Days,” Browne was already a Rock veteran by 1973 and god knows what Nico had been through in her young life between her time in New York with Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvets. But when then 44-year-old Westerberg begs “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them,” you can tell that by this point in his life and career he’s had his fair share.
Any way you slice it, “These Days” is an amazing song open to different interpretations that still retain the essential forlorn quality of the lyrics. And no matter which version you prefer, you’ve got to hand it to the author for writing one of the great rock ballads. In fact, it’s hard to believe it sometimes gets overlooked in the vast Jackson Browne canon. I suppose you could chalk this post up to making sure this gem stays on your radar in one form or another.
Finally got around to acquiring The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. I on digital after never replacing my old LP of it (probably still in a box in the garage beneath 10 other boxes of CDs!). I had forgotten what a great album it is. Not only the oft-played hits “Lola” and Apeman”, two relatively rare examples of humor propelling successful Rock songs, but also the wonderfully sardonic “Top of the Pops” and the groovin’ “Powerman”. Really the whole album has this lovely, organically acoustic feel via the liberal use of dobros, Martin guitars and banjos that contrasts sharply but pleasantly with the worldly, jaded lyrics. That also leads to an interesting Roots-Americana influence on a band that is really the most archetypally British of all the British Invaders. But perhaps my favorite track on this standout 1970 album is the beautifully wistful “This Time Tomorrow.”
Encapsulating the yearning and ennui inherent in the constant touring of the Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, the song is 3:21 of musical bliss. From the jet engine opening to the wonderful banjo-guitar-piano interplay to the always excellent Ray Davies’ heartfelt but never maudlin lyrics, “This Time Tomorrow” is one of the great life-on-the-road Rock songs. It also fits in so well with Lola‘s leitmotif of all around disenchantment with the music business at large. After all, whenever you start doing something for money it loses a lot of its charm and romance, its bright-eyed innocence & enthusiasm. But the paradox is that Ray Davies and the Kinks’ very jaundiced reflections on their life as professional musicians vis a vis Lola Versus Powerman produced such a sparklingly gorgeous pop ballad. And like the best of The Kinks, it sounds as good and fresh today as it did 45 years ago. That’s writing what you know even though you may be sick to death of it and still turning it into gold.
Glenn Frey, one of the founders of the Eagles who, along with Don Henley, was a core member for the band’s entire existence, has passed away. He was 67. The NY Times Obituary is here.
Below are some of the most Glenn Frey-centric Eagles hits. Yes, they’re certainly straight ahead Album Oriented Rock that you’ve probably heard 8 million times by now. But they exhibit pretty damn good musicianship, wonderful harmonies and the hooks still catch 40 years on. There’s also a certain 70s zeitgeist infusing the music that few other bands have retained without seeming terribly dated or bombastic.
Frey served as singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Eagles, one of the most successful Rock acts of the 1970s, a radio staple and still one of the biggest selling bands ever. Frey, a Detroit native, and Henley, a Texan, apprenticed in the burgeoning early 1970s California singer-songwriter scene, including stints together in Linda Rondstadt’s backing band, before striking out on their own and founding the Eagles. Their genius was to mainstream Gram Parson’s “Country Rock” fusion and turn it into Top 40 radio gold. Frey admittedly learned much of his songwriting craft from Jackson Browne, perhaps the ultimate singer-songwriter of that period, famously living above him in LA and absorbing his hard working compositional technique, which featured endless repetition on piano and endless cups of tea. The two would later go on to co-author one of the Eagles biggest smashes, “Take It Easy”.
What hasn’t been said about the Eagles already? For one of the best documentaries on their big time Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, as well as the particular disfunctional dynamics of their ever-changing membership through the years, check out the epically comprehensive History of the Eagles. And for one of the funnier and most obsessive analysis of any documentary you will ever read, check out the great Bill Simmons take on History of the Eagles over at his Grantland site. His OCD dissection of the film and the band is the definitive take and probably one of the most enjoyable pieces of Rock journalism that I’ve read in a long time, even if it is all vicarious.
So another Rock ‘n Roll great has exited the stage. Even if the Eagles divided critical opinion back in the day, with New York and Mid West-based pundits regularly bashing them for their slickness, perceived sexism and very California-ness, such arguments seem quaint in era where a music magazine like Rolling Stone regularly puts American Idol winners on its covers. Take away the carping of the critics and the band controversies and the music remains solid, well made and enjoyable because it’s generally not going for grandeur just excellence. It survives and still thrives on its own merits and a greatest hits compilation belongs in any serious Rock fan’s collection at the least. Looking back, the Eagles go down as one of the very best of their hedonistic and slightly paranoid era and if they had only made “Hotel California,” actually an atypically dark and cryptic song for them, they would still have an entry in the Book of Rock. But they had a ton more hits and great tunes and so they’ve surely earned their own chapter. And Glenn Frey was a big, big part of that.
Still missing the man but reveling in the music. Here’s to a life well lived and a true Rock ‘n Roll innovator determined never to repeat himself. Now that he’s gone I think we can really see his impact on our culture at large was even more important than was generally thought on a lot of levels.