Monthly Archives: July 2012

Classic Albums Revisited: DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP

The second album that AC/DC recorded, DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP has an unusual release history. In this modern age of iTUNES and instantaneous/simultaneous global releases it sometimes shocks people to learn just how fucked up some band’s catalogs are. The best examples are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. For whatever reason, there is a huge differences in album art, album titles, track listing, etc. on much of the these classic band’s output. This issue often creates a problem for international fans who invariably ask, “which is the official or canonical release for this band?” Oddly enough, The Beatles and Stones are (like in most cases) polar opposites. For The Beatles, the British releases are considered the “true” or “real” catalog. Thus, in the 1980’s when their records were converted over to CD the American public was…confused when the British LP’s were released on CD. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones choose to have the American release act as their “official” cannon.

Whatever.

What does any of this have to do with AC/DC? Well, if you live in Australia or Europe DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP was the band’s second album, and it came out in 1979. If you lived in America it came out in 1981 after the massively successful BACK IN BLACK record. This might seem like a little detail, but if you’re living in America and AC/DC puts out BACK IN BLACK as a tribute to their fallen lead singer, Bon Scott, with new vocalist Brian Johnson and a year later Scott returns on a “new” record…you might wonder what the hell is going on.

The following “Classic Albums Revisited” is true, only the names have been changed to protected the innocent.

The delay in the album’s release in America is all about taste. The good folks over at Atlantic records didn’t get, probably couldn’t get, songs like “Squealer” or “Big Balls.” What they could ‘get’ was the piles of money the band made after Johnson’s death when BACK IN BLACK hit #4 on the US record charts. What’s amazing, however, is the success of DIRTY DEEDS. It went on to reach #3 here in the US, making it the highest charting AC/DC album.

This of course just goes to show you that the suits at the top have no idea what the hell they are doing.

I first heard AC/DC growing up listening to classic rock radio with my parents. I never really noticed a difference between Brian Johnson and Bon Scott. As an older, more critical listener I can separate the two (Scott having a slightly higher register than Johnson). Many consider Johnson to be an imitation of Scott, but I don’t think that’s very fair. However, as a music geek/nerd I have to love the original line-up more.

Growing up, I only knew one person in the whole world that liked AC/DC, a kid named Josh that lived over on the next street. I remember him showing me his CD collection before class in 8th grade. Our teacher was one of the younger teachers at our school, she happened to be walking by when he was showing me his collection:

“Oh, AC/DC…they were popular when I was in High School. I can’t believe people still listen to them.”

She had a nasty, slightly disgusted look on her face. Like we were looking at a Playboy instead of a stack of shiny plastic discs. I can’t really say I blame her, there is something inherently…dirty about AC/DC. Oh sure, they sing about the usual sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll…but that’s not quite what makes them seem so…’brown bag.’ For me, and I suspect lots of people, AC/DC is a bit of ‘brown bag’ bag. You know, the sort of thing you buy looking down at your shoes. The sort of thing you stuff under your mattress.

The album’s title track, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is one of the most cinematic rock songs I’ve ever heard. Every time I hear this song, a roaring advertisement for a dubious, back-alley problem solving service, I can see the vicious High School principal. I can see the cheating boyfriend who needs his ass kicked. The bitchy woman that needs to be put in her place. All of these people harass us throughout our lives– how often have we wished for a tough-talking wise guy to appear and magically “solve” these walking-problems by kicking some ass? The only thing better is: this service is surprisingly affordable (dirt cheap).

“Big Balls.” I’m sure there are a few of you reading this that have never heard this song. And I bet just by reading the title you have a pretty good idea what this song sounds like. Right??? Wrong. Oh sure, AC/DC could have gone all low-brow and written a song about how big their balls are. They could have, but they didn’t. Instead, these (seemingly) dunder-headed rockers form Down Under have crafted a shockingly up-scale double entendre. A song that’s both rockin’ and 10X funnier than any Weird Al song.

My favorite part:

“Some balls are held for charity
And some for fancy dress
But when they’re held for pleasure
They’re the balls that I like best”

The Chuck Berry-esque “Rocker” is an awesome, breathless song that clocks in at only 2:52 but manages to perfectly encapsulate everything about rock music. That this track is so perfect (and yep almost haphazardly dashed-off) is surprising…but not as surprising as “Ride On.” Think about AC/DC and what do you think of? Loud. Balls-to-the-walls rock, right? “Ride On” is a quiet, introspective cowboy song. It’s my favorite track because of the vulnerability in Bon Scott’s voice, the regret and yes…heartache in his soul. At five minutes, it’s too long for radio-play (and was thus, never released as a single) but in my book ranks as one of the greatest rock ballads of all time. The guitar solo starts at 3:40 and goes all the way to 4:47. It’s not a complex or blistering solo, but like great bluesman of the past, Angus Young astounds by somehow conveying real human emotion through thin steel stings.

It’s an amazing, beautiful moment and it’s on an AC/DC record.

The original Australian Artwork:

This album artwork was…DONE…DIRT…CHEAP!!!

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“You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared”

Let me start off by explaining two things: firstly, this post is not my long-gestating epic on Warren Zevon.  Warren is my all-time favorite songwriter and I keep meaning to write a long, rambly essay about why he’s so awesome but I’ve had trouble finding the words.  So this is not that post.  Secondly, this post is not “about” the Colorado shootings that took place recently at a midnight showing of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  That unfortunate event was the impetus for this post, but I don’t want to cheapen that tragic event by talking about it on DEFENDING AXL ROSE (which is just a shitty music blog).

Sometimes I wonder why I even bother listening to, obsessing over, and writing about music.  God knows it doesn’t make me any money.  But the older I get, the more I feel this terrible compulsion to disappear into music, where I’m able to float off into another place.  In college I was trained to not just read books, but write about them when I finished them.  I guess that explains why I feel the urge to write about albums after I’m done listening to them: I’ve been brainwashed by the educational system.  So in a nutshell, this blog is just an itch I have to scratch, and even though it feels like a waste of time, I indulge myself.

But every so often, something will happen that will really make me question all of it.  Usually this is a terrible, tragic event.  In the face of death, mass death of many innocent people, I can’t help but wonder “what the fuck am I doing with my life?”  What does it mean? Is there a point to any of this obsessive listening, or am I just wasting my time? Does art, specifically music, offer anything other than a fleeting, masturbatory escape from brutal reality?

I’ve been asking myself these (and other) questions all week.

Whenever a violent tragedy occurs, I’m always baffled by all the macho assholes who immediately step forward to let everyone know what “they would have done” had they been there.  I really can’t stand people who do this, but I was never able to articulate what it was exactly that was wrong with their braggadocious bravado.  Then a few days ago it hit me.  I was talking with my wife about recent events and the subject came up about thick-necked jerks who think they’d have stopped 9/11 had they just been on those planes…and then BANG! I instantly remembered Warren Zevon’s song “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”

“You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”

That title is ridiculous, isn’t it? But it sums up everything nicely so it gets a pass in my book.  The thesis of the song, co-written by famed-gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is that we’re not ourselves when we’re truly, deeply afraid.  The song is both groovy and goofy (because that’s how Zevon rolled) but at it’s core, “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared” is 100% true.  I’ve only been terrified one or two times in my life, and I can tell you–when you’re scared you don’t act like yourself.  You don’t act like yourself because human beings are animals, and when animals get scared, survival instincts kick-in.  It’s easy to say that in the face of extreme danger you’d “step up” and be a hero…but the the reality is something else entirely.  Can any of us really say, with anything approximating certainty, that we know what we’d do in the face of death? I don’t think so.

I’d been struggling to find the words, to sum up my position on the whole matter, when Zevon’s song suddenly sprang to mind.  That a song helped resolve my feelings about a very serious matter shouldn’t be a surprise to me, but it was.  Once I got to thinking about it, I realized that a life surrounded by art is more than just pretty things and cute sayings.  It’s more than just a good beat and fun time.  Music, good music, is more than just superficial beauty, it can enlighten us, and put into words what we know but cannot say.  I’m no mental-slouch, but I was having a hard time coming up with the exact reason for why I was so pissed at these tough-guy jerkoff’s–but Hunter S. Thompson and Warren Zevon knew what I was trying to say and gave me “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”

This whole experience has done nothing but affirm to me that I’m not wasting my time, there is something to be gained by enjoying music and the world of art.  Rock ‘n roll ain’t noise pollution, to me it makes good, good sense.

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Classic Albums Revisited: IT’S HARD

The second album following the death of drummer Keith Moon, and the last until 2006’s ENDLESS WIRE, The Who’s album IT’S HARD isn’t as highly regarded as the group’s late 60’s and 70’s output. Released in 1982, the band wasn’t considered “relevant” anymore by most mainstream rock critics. Radio stations and casual music fans greeted IT’S HARD with ambivalence when it came out, and the album languished at #11 in the UK and #8 in the US. Of course, most bands would kill for their album to reach #8. But IT’S HARD wasn’t released by “most bands,” it was put out by the legendary Who (or what remained of them).

“He’s an Atari Wizard, there has to be a trick…”

A few years ago I got into this phase where every time I took a long car-trip I’d go buy a Who album to listen to while I drove. After a few long-ass car rides I’d purchased just about every single Who album, except for FACE DANCES and IT’S HARD. I chose IT’S HARD over FACE DANCES because I’d heard “Eminence Front” on the radio growing-up and remembered liking it.

Despite being deemed a failure upon it’s release, I found IT’S HARD to actually be not only a pretty solid late-period Who album, but actually a pretty good Who album-overall. IT’S HARD is an extremely passionate record. Roger Daltry is no slouch when it comes to conveying emotion through his legendary rock-howl…but on IT’S HARD his voice is downright visceral.

I also read a review somewhere that said the album was full of complex songs with meandering structures that, for the large part have no strong melodies. I agree with some of that. The songs do have long, almost prog-rock like structures, but this enhances the album and is a detraction. I will admit that the hooky lyrics and melodies of the early Who albums aren’t as strong here. But what the album lacks in “hooks” and choruses you can instantly sing along with, the album makes up in passion.

The album’s two singles–the before mentioned “Eminence Front” and “Athena,” aren’t really very reflective of the album as a whole. Whenever this happens (a band’s single not representing the bulk of an album’s content), that artist is nearly always in trouble. Perhaps the main record-buying public balked at IT’S HARD because of “Athena” and it’s bubbly, adult-contemporary-ness. Serious Who fans who were floored by the groovy white-guy soul (that only Brits can pull off) of “Eminence Front” were probably turned off by the rather non-groovy white-guy soul of the rest of the album. Both groups are hard to please, but with the passage of time and absolutely no expectations I walked into this album complete and utterly shocked. And amazed.

As stated earlier, this is a record dripping with passion, and passion and politics go hand-in-hand. No stranger’s to politics, The Who once again dabble in fiery protest rock with “I’ve Known No War.” Equal parts anti-war/pacifist, this song chillingly points out that even if a person doesn’t want to fight in the great war it won’t matter…because the next great war will be fought by two people with there fingers on “the button.”

Also political, is “Why Did I Fall For That?” which seems to directly answer the band’s earlier “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Listening to this song reminds me some of my relatives who voted for the current president…then voted for him the second time. The song reminds us that history will hold ALL of us accountable for falling for the same old line time and time again. In other words, twenty years later, it STILL touches a nerve. That, my friends, is awesome.

The album’s title track is fucking amazing. It’s completely 100% classic Who. It has the nice, rollicking guitar. It has the pounding drums. It has the classic Who-background vocal-chant. The lyrics, while a little cumbersome at times are still pretty good. Who (not the band) after a particularly bad day hasn’t asked the heavens above to be dealt a better hand? The Who (band) have:

“Anyone can do anything if they hold the right card
So I’m thinking about my life now
I’m thinking very hard
Deal me another hand Lord, this one’s very hard
Deal me another hand Lord, this one’s very hard”

The guitar work on this record, while a little more restrained (compared to previous Who records) is still very good. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous Rocky-Theme-sounding horns at the beginning of “One At a Time.” These horns were never cool, not even in 1982. Crappy horns (they’re seriously only there for like 5 seconds) aside, “One At a Time” is actually a pretty good song, in the same vein as “Squeeze Box” and “You Better You Bet.”  But my biggest gripe I have about IT’S HARD is that it’s production is a bit dated (read: sounds like the 1980’s) and the band uses a bit too much synthesizer for my taste. I’m sure at the time; this wasn’t as big an issue as it is now. Like black and white film, the sound of a synthesizer really turns a lot of young people off. To be fair to The Who, IT’S HARD makes good use of the synthesizer. Still, I think the production/synthesize-issue are the two main reasons this record’s reputation takes such a hit compared to the bulk of the Who’s recordings in many people’s esteem.

Despite a lackluster public and critical reception, IT’S HARD is actually pretty fucking amazing now that I think about it. Next time you find yourself about to listen to WHO’S NEXT, TOMMY, or (if you’re really cool) QUADROPHENIA, pop in IT’S HARD instead. This album demands a second (or third, fourth, etc.) listen.

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Shocking: New No Doubt Song Only Kinda Sux

Veteran 90’s pop-rockers No Doubt unleashed their first new single single “Settle Down.”  The band has a new album coming out (their first since 2001’s ROCKSTEADY). If that shocks you (like it did me) it means that you are getting very, very old. I won’t pretend to be the world’s biggest fan of No Doubt, but I won’t deny that some of their music is pretty good.  While no one can deny that TRAGIC KINGDOM is a seminal ’90s record, the band (in my opinion) devolved into what essentially became Gwen Stefani’s solo career (her actual solo career no doubt contributed to the “2001? What the hell?” moment I had upon looking up when No Doubt actually last put out an album).

Clocking in at over six minutes, “Settle Down” is bland and kinda boring as a lead-single from a band we haven’t heard from in over a decade.  It’s got a funk, Caribbean-feel to it (which is interesting) but it’s a little too light.  Me, I would have gone with a heavier-sounding song, that way we could tell the difference between this song and Stefani’s solo work. Because quite frankly, “Settle Down” sounds like it could be on either the last No Doubt record or the last Stefani solo-record.

Not that that’s a bad thing, per say…I just think a the band should have done something risker right out of the gate.   Anyway, if “Settle Down” is any indication, we have a paint-by-numbers “we all want to get paid again” album waiting for us when PUSH AND SHOVE comes out in September. Am I totally off-base? Give the song a listen and tell me what you think?

 

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“Octopus” by Bloc Party

Bloc Party was one of those buzz bands that never seemed to deliver upon their promise. I bought debut album SILENT ALARM when it came out in 2005, but it took me a few listens before I was really able to “get” them as a band.  They’re definitely going deeper into a  more quasi-electronica sound with their new song “Octopus.”

Bloc Party, indie-rock album naming champs that they are, have decided to call their fourth album FOUR.
Rock on.

The song opens with a quick breath (or is that a yawn?) before taking off into a falsetto-coated groove. I wasn’t sure what a 2012-era Bloc Party song would sound like, but I actually really dug this single. The hook is strong.  The song is funky.  There’s an awesome, futuristic guitar solo.  I’m actually excited to hear what the new album is going to sound like after hearing this song.  I’m a jaded music-nerd, but I think this bodes well for the band.

But don’t take my word for it, check out the song, and tell me what you think:

 

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I Miss Ticket Stubs

So here I sit, still reeling from the amazing El Monstero show I saw last Saturday…and I’m bummed out because I don’t have a ticket stub.  I got out my little box of old ticket stubs last night and took a stroll down memory lane.  Each little scrap of paper was a memory.   I know that saying this will instantly make me an old man, but: “Man, I miss ticket stubs.”  My El Monstero tickets, like most of my tickets nowadays, was a just a printed piece of paper.  It got all mangled and wadded up, so I threw it away.

Years from now, I will have no tangible link to this show.  That’s a bummer.

So many awesome memories.

Printing tickets at home is cool, when it is FREE (which isn’t offen enough for my tastes), but mostly I pine for the days of paper tickets.  Ticket stubs are such a cool keepsake, it’s a shame today’s youth are going to miss out on them.  Am I crazy?  Is this not that big of a deal? Tell me what you think in the comments section. 

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El Monstero & The Tribute-Band Phenomenon

Last night I saw the most amazing rock show I’ve ever seen.  Local Pink Floyd tribute band/St. Louis heroes El Monstero didn’t just put on a concert, it was a full-on spectacle.  The music of Pink Floyd was faithfully performed with not only a band, but with classy female back-up singers, sax players, a children’s choir (you know what song that was for), and a bitchin’ laser show.  There were costume changes, towers of multi-colored flames, confetti cannons, and an honest-to-God 70’s mirror ball.  They also landed a helicopter for the opening of “Another Brick In The Wall.”

The alternate name for El Monstero should be “Pigs N’ Hammers.”

Back in the 1970’s, this level of excess was commonplace, but not so in today’s cash-strapped times.  Oh sure, you can see U2 put on a rock-spectacle, but they are one of the few bands big enough to pull-off (and afford) such dizzying overindulgent rock theatre.  I think gimmicks are stupid as a rule, but if you’ve got the music down, a little spectacle can push the amazing into the awesome (as in actually inspiring awe).

El Monstero is not a good Pink Floyd tribute band, they’re an exceptional one.  I don’t know if they sounded like Floyd sounded live, I am too young to know, what I can tell you is that El Monstero perfectly replicates the way the albums of Pink Floyd sound, in every single detail.  That by itself is no small feat, and worthy of much praise.  The band’s been around for over a decade here in St. Louis, slowly building a rabid fan-base.  Apparently the band started out in the (sadly gone) Mississippi Nights night club, playing for a few hundred people.  Last night, the band upped their game playing for a few thousand.  Rather than just “merely” replicating the sound of Pink Floyd, the band replicated the theatrical nature of the band, and their famous 70’s tours (like the one they did in support of THE WALL).  Equal parts rock show, opera, circus, and LSD trip, the concert at Riverport (aka The Verizon Wireless Amphitheater) blew just about every other tribute band I’ve seen out of the water.

Tribute bands are a funny thing.  On one hand, you have grown men dressing up like 20-something-Liverpudlians, singing “She Loves You” while praying their wigs don’t fall off.  At the other end of the spectrum, you have serious musicians studying, mastering, and performing classic rock–basically treating Pink Floyd like it’s Beethoven.  And why shouldn’t Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin be treated like Beethoven or Bach?  Why do some fans cringe at the mere mention of the term “tribute band”? Rock ‘n roll has always been about celebrity, but I think it was MTV that cemented the notion that anyone playing the songs of Pink Floyd that isn’t Pink Floyd are only imitators.  I find this funny, because when the St. Louis Symphony plays the music of Beethoven no one considers that to be “low rent” or “low brow.”  Or ridiculous.  A symphony isn’t imitating Beethoven; they’re just playing his music.

Part of the issue is the fact that, as I’ve said, rock music is just as much about personalities/celebrities as it is about music.  That’s petty and sad, but unfortunately the truth.  Another part of the issue, though, are how these tribute bands focus on the wrong elements of their act–I think it’s better for a band to replicate the sound of Led Zeppelin than to necessarily look like Led Zeppelin.  Many of the Beatles tribute bands that I’ve seen over the years fall into this trap, sacrificing quality of sound for quality of visual presentation. El Monstero, for example, don’t go out of their way to “become” Roger Waters or David Gilmour. They don’t mess with fake mustaches or wigs; instead they’re about recreating sounds.

*Sigh*

The spectacle I witnessed last night, while not a direct copy of a classic Pink Floyd concert, captured the essence of the band’s giant circus-like tours.  Rather than being actors sticking to a script, a great tribute band will use creative license to replicate the music.  I know that seems pretty obvious, but I’ve seen Beatles tribute bands that tell actual jokes John Lennon said at early Beatles concerts.  I’ve seen jittery “actors” playing Paul McCartney do mannerisms that Paul did on film, often doing these McCartney-isms 50 times during a performance because it was something that Paul actually did (even though there’s no way he was that fidgety).

One thing that takes the so-called “cheese factor” off of El Monstero is that the band doesn’t stumble onto the stage, with fake British accents, and pretend that they’re actually Pink Floyd.  Instead El Monstero is just a band that just happens to play Pink Floyd tunes.  As time marches on, and we lose more classic rock bands (and the people who’ve seen them in concert), I think the demand for professional tribute bands will greatly increase.  I also think the “stink” of being a tribute band will also lessen.  It may take a very, very long time…but if we don’t blow up the Earth with nuclear war, I can foresee a time when elegant men and women will go to their local Opera Houses to see professional musicians perform the works of Lennon and McCartney sans-stigma, like they were going to see a classical music concert.

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The Worst Opening Act

I try to keep it positive here at Defending Axl Rose, but sometimes you have no choice but to be negative.  We’ve all been there: hot, sweaty, pressed up against complete strangers in a darkened room desperately waiting for your favorite band to take the stage.  But before they can rock your socks-off, however, you gotta sit through the opening act.  There was a time when I didn’t care much for seeing opening bands.  Most of the time, when you see a “big” artist in a “big” venue, you only have to sit through one band that you didn’t pay to see…but if you’re a club-rat, seeing a shitty band in a shitty dive, you usually get to see TWO opening bands.

So there’s two ways to look at this: there’s the glass half-full and the glass half-empty approach.

1. Half-Empty: You got to sit/ stand-pressed-against-a-fat-guy-you-don’t-know through two bands you didn’t pay to see and probably don’t care about.  

and

2. Half-Full: You get to sit/stand-pressed-against-a-fat-guy-you-don’t-know through two bands you didn’t pay to see and probably don’t care about.

Now what’s the difference? Your attitude.  Once I grew up and actually wanted to TRY and EXPERIENCE new things, I found myself actually excited to see what the opening bands had to offer.  In most cases the opening band is related, in some way, to the headliner.   That relation might be tangential at best*, but there is a relationship.  Once I started opening my ears and my mind, I found myself often walking out of dive-bars/clubs with a new favorite band.  In some cases, I actually liked the opening band better than the headliner.  Blasphemy? Only if you’re 13 years-old and you only want to hear the headliner’s latest hit-single.  Me? I’m a deep-album cut sort of fellow.

A few years back I took my wife to see The Kings of Leon here in St. Louis.  The Kings of Leon were good but the opening band, The Features, blew us both away.  We fell in love with them and they soon became her all-time favorite band.  We’ve since seen them five or six times because we love them dearly (and they tour like madmen).  Now, what if we’d have skipped the opening act? What if we’d showed up just as Kings of Leon took the stage?   The Features are the better band and the only reason we ever heard of them was because we showed up early for the concert and politely listened to a band we’d never heard of.  The sad part is, I think that happens a lot—and by that I mean really great bands opening for ones that are just “alright.”  In a perfect world, The Kings of Leon would be opening for The Features, not the other way around.

The Features, 1000% better than any headliner.

Want another example? I saw Rooney back in 2003/2004** and was really impressed by their opening band The Redwalls.  The Redwalls had better songs and rocked harder than Rooney***.  To this day, I own more Redwalls albums than Rooney albums and I feel that my life has been enriched by waiting patiently through an opening act that turned out to be damn sweet.

Of course, there have been some really awful opening bands I’ve had to suffer through.  The worst of all-time was a band called White Williams.  I was seeing Vampire Weekend (again with the wife) and White Williams was the first of two opening bands.  Actually, that’s not right…White Williams was not a “band” but rather two dudes in sweaters.  One had a laptop and the other had a guitar.   I’m all for experimental music, and I think there’s some really awesome stuff some artists are doing with loops and simple guitar licks, but these guys weren’t actually doing anything.  One guy just stood there with his guitar, looking like he was asleep, while the other dude dramatically pressed a few buttons on his laptop.  When I say dramatically, I mean this guy was pressing one button on his laptop every few seconds like he was Eddie Van Halen SHREDDING on a solo.  He had that intensity on his face like he was lifting the continent of Antarctica on his shoulders while at the same time working on a cure for cancer. In short, he was a acting like a complete douchebag: all he was doing was standing there with a sweater…pressing buttons.

The lead-laptopist of White Williams, taking a rare break from lap-topping.

What does the name White Williams evoke? Does it make you think of bland, vanilla, anglo-static?  Well that’s what I think that name evokes for me, and it turns out that’s what White Williams sounds like.  They’re the worst, bland electronica you can imagine.  I seriously hope one of the guys in White Williams is in a relationship with someone in Vampire Weekend, because if having them on the bill that night wasn’t a John-making-Yoko-happy-by-letting-her-sing-on-the-album situation then Vampire Weekend are idiots****.  People often talk and check their cell phones during an opening band, but I saw people drift dangerously close to falling asleep during White Williams’ set.  I don’t think rock bands should do idiotic stunts, but you’ve got to do more to wow an audience than simply show up with your sweater and laptop.

Another mistake White Williams made was essentially play one song for twenty minutes.  During their set they said nothing to the audience, for all I know they really did only play one song.  The only reason I know they’re called “White Williams” is because the guy with the laptop mouth-breathed it once just before exiting the stage*****.

I know all of that seems pretty harsh, but you have to understand, I did not pay to see White Williams.  I didn’t make that choice, they were thrust upon me.  I think if you’re going to be in the ENTERTAINMENT industry you should, at the every least, be ENTERTAINING.  But there’s a bad apple in every bunch, and for the most part I still maintain that opening bands are worth your time and your respect.  Be an adult and let the White Williams’ of the world actually let you down before you completely dismiss them outright.

ENDNOTES:

* Like they’re represented by the same management or were called last-minute to fill-in.

**It was a long time ago, I can’t really remember.

***Who eventually turned into a just okay pop band, which by the way is not a crime.

**** Read: I hope the dude in White Williams is blowing someone in Vampire Weekend.

****That’s a systemic problem in rock shows these days, nobody bothers so say who they are anymore.  I can’t count the number of really cools bands that get onstage, rock my world and then leave without adequately explaining who the fuck they are.  Don’t want me to buy your records, visit your website, blog about you, become your fan? Okay dude, good luck with that. TELL US WHO YOU ARE MORE THAN ONCE!!!

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Jellyfish Sampler

Jellyfish was an awesome band, but don’t take my word for it:

 

 

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Your Next Favorite Band: Jellyfish

They say that stars that burn twice as bright burn half as long.  I want to introduce you to a really amazing power-pop band from the 1990’s, but before I do I must warn you: they only put out two records.  If you’re the kind of person that obsesses over really awesome shit that never got its proper due, maybe you should sit this one out.  Jellyfish was a band that I grew up with and to this day I still love them and smile whenever I hear one of their songs.  I’ve met precious few people who’ve even heard of them (or can remember them) and that’s a real shame because they put out two damn near perfect records.

A word about “power-pop.”  I really feel stupid using that term and not just because it sounds like a super-caffeinated soft drink.  In general, I really dislike the concept of “genre.” But I must admit that it does serve as a nice bit of short-hand when you’re trying to talk to people so I’m going to use the term “power-pop.”  Power-pop is basically rock music that features strong lyrical hooks and big guitar riffs.  Melodies and harmonies are also really important in power-pop.  A lot of the British invasion-era rock could be considered power-pop, but for the most part the term is applied to bands that came after/were influenced by those bands.  So The Beatles are not considered power-pop but Badfinger (who came later and are basically the same band) are power-pop.

BELLYBUTTON-era Jellyfish. Awesome musicians with terrible fashion sense.

Jellyfish was formed in 1989 in San Francisco, California. The band had several members over the years but the foundation of the band was two super-talented, multi-instrumentalists: Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.*  Andy was primarily the drummer and Roger played keyboards.   For their first album, Roger and Andy were joined by bassist Chris Manning a duty that was also shared by Steven Shane McDonald (of Redd Kross-fame, another great power-pop band from this era) and guitarist Jason Falkner.  To say that these  lads had talent is the worst kind of understatement–there really were four geniuses in the band. And while that helped make the first Jellyfish album, BELLYBUTTON, an instant-classic…it also lead to a lot of tension.

BELLYBUTTON came out in 1990 and was met with moderate success.  The album spawned three singles, “The King Is Half-Undressed,” “That Is Why,” and “Baby’s Coming Back.”   Some quirky music videos and a funky day-glo image helped get people’s attention, though the band was never a true household name.  BELLYBUTTON’s sound is one of lush harmonies and catchy-as-hell choruses.  The Beatles and Beach Boys are all over this record (they even mention The Beatles by name in  “All I Want Is Everything”). And while the band doesn’t ever quite go full-on psychedelic, they get close.  It’s a bit difficult to say “this is what Jellyfish sounds like” because like late-period Beatles (and super-druggy Brian Wilson), Jellyfish experiment with different sounds and instruments.

Among the kaleidoscope of 1960’s-ish sounds there are are two really nice ballads, “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Calling Sarah.”  “I Wanna Stay Home” in particular almost sounds like it belongs on a totally different record.  It’s a very sincere song that’s about having to go even though you just want to say home.  The very next song “She Still Loves Him” is a haunting tale about an abusive relationship, it’s a great song, with some really sharp lyrics and an awesome guitar solo…but it also feels very odd after “I Wanna Stay Home.”  BELLYBUTTON, while a fantastic record, is not a unified work of art.  Instead it’s more of an awesome Frankenstein’s Monster of a record, with a bunch of really awesome bits sown together.   There are a ton of really nice little details that really don’t appreciate on the first few listens.  Some of my favorites include: the nice trumpet part at the beginning of “Bedspring Kiss”, the faux-live effect/crowd sound on the Cheap Trick-like “All I Want Is Everything”**, and the dreamy piano noodling that plays before “She Still Loves Him.”

In 1993 the band put out their second album SPILT MILK.  This album sadly did not feature most of the band from the first record–gone was everyone but Sturmer and Manning Jr.  A new bassist, Tim Smith, was added to the mix along with a few session guitarists.  Despite the change in personnel, I actually prefer SPILT MILK and think it’s the stronger of the two records.  SPILT MILK is interesting because Jellyfish takes the 1960’s British-Pop aesthetics of BELLYBUTTON and apply a thick coating of Glam Rock.  What you get is something that sounds like Queen-by-way-of-The Beatles.  Oddly enough, despite losing their guitarists, SPILT MILK also has way better guitar parts/solos, though Roger Manning’s keyboards do wind up taking a more prominent role.  SPILT MILK is full of such dualities: it’s a keyboard album with awesome guitars, dark and angry but has a playful song about masturbation (“He’s My Best Friend”).

The album opens with the quiet, lullaby-like “Hush” which ironically leads into the explosive “Joining A Fanclub.” I can’t say enough about how awesome “Joining A Fanclub” is.  Ostensibly about the dangers of stardom and hero worship, the songs is a really headbangger.  It’s the kind of song you hear while driving and it causes you to get a speeding ticket.  Every time I hear it I think about Robert Downey Jr. (who at the time this song was written was constantly getting into trouble with the law).  I also really love “New Mistake” with it’s twisty-lyrics about an “oops” pregnancy–the best part? At the end the baby grows up and marries a pop singer (because it’s time for her to make her “first mistake.”).  This is the kind of song that keep me up at night it’s so awesome.  I almost don’t believe it was crafted by mere mortals.  I also can’t help but marvel at “The Ghost Of Number One” which seems to poke fun at the fact that the band knew that they weren’t going to reach the level of success that they deserved.

Like BELLYBUTTON, Jellyfish’s second record also features some interesting experimentation. I’m confident that I’d never been exposed to Klezmer music*** before I heard “Bye Bye Bye.”  That song alone is worth the purchase price of the album, it’s simply a stunningly awesome song, and was definitely not something you heard on the radio in 1993 (or hell today for that matter).  The album ends with the magnificent, circus-themed “Brighter Day.” The song is a fantastic way to close the record and unfortunately the recording career of Jellyfish.  And when it ends all you want to do is start the whole thing over again. 

So what happened? Well a lack of success and bruised egos led Jellyfish to die an unglamorous death, alone and relatively unmourned.  Jason Falkner and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. both have had relatively successful solo-careers (Falkner in particular has recorded some amazing records).  Lead-singer Andy Sturmer gave up being in bands and is how a producer.  Over the years the band has developed a somewhat cult-following online.  I wrote my one and only Wikipedia entry in 2006 when a greatest-hits compilation called BEST! was released.  It’s not a very long article, more like an album stub but for some reason I felt compelled to write it.  Jellyfish is one of those bands I simply can’t imagine living without and it bums me out that so few people are aware of them.  I highly, highly recommend Jellyfish. 

 

ENDNOTES:

*Fun fact, the “Jr.” had to be added to Roger’s professional name because it turned out there already WAS a semi-not-really famous musician named Roger Joseph Manning.  What are the chances of such a thing?  Now go win that super-obscure power-pop bar-trivia.

 

**It sounds like LIVE AT BUDOKAN, get it?

 

***Jewish Eastern European music. It’s as awesome as it sounds. 

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