Monthly Archives: September 2012

Robin Zander’s Secret Country Album: COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.

I’ve been on a roll with the country-themed posts, so I decided to do one more.  I’ve been meaning to reviewing COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.,  Robin Zander’s long-gestating (country) solo album with a complicated release history.  The record was supposed to come out a few years ago but has been stalled for reasons no one seems to know.  Apparently it was for sale on the Zune music service for two days before the record label spontaneously removed it. Since this is 2012, I of course have a bootleg copy of the album which I have been enjoying…

Robin Zander, a real rhinestone cowboy.

So why the delays? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that, on paper at least, a country album from the lead singer of Cheap Trick would be a train-wreck–an utter mess of twang and vanity, fit only for the most fervent Cheap Trick/Zander fan.  I adore Cheap Trick and think Zander can (almost) do no wrong, but even I was skeptical when I first heard about COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  But after giving it a few listens I can honestly say that it’s really good.

The key to COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. not being an epic pile of shite is this: the album isn’t really hard-core country.  It’s a rock album with country overtones and twangy guitars (and some fiddling).  Robin Zander did not record a Garth Brooks record by any stretch.  Like many solo albums of those involved in major bands, there are many songs that sound as though they could have easily fit onto the next Cheap Trick record.  If like me, you’re starved for Cheap Trick, then this is a very good thing.  If Cheap Trick ain’t your bag, then you’re probably not going to find much to like on COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.

The album opens with “Every Dog,” which sounds like a weaker Traveling Wilbury’s number.  It’s not quite rock, not quite country  and right away there are Hare Krishna references.  It’s a good song and pretty representative of what lies ahead: Wilburys-esque rockers with an eccentric-lyrical bent. I’m sure Zander’s vocals have been touched up, but damn does he still sound good.  Even if it is a special effect, one can’t help but admire how great he still sounds.  I especially was impressed with his cooing on “Love Comes*.”  It might seem like a silly thing, but I don’t think it’s easy for most singers to belt it out one minute then come all the way down to a gentle coo.

Standouts on the album include the gentle ballad “Heart of Glass” and the barn-burner “Say You Will.”  The former being a countrified version of the epic tender-jams Cheap Trick are famous (notorious?) for.  “Say You Will” is a solid rave-up that finds Zander wailing á la Little Richard.

The best song, though, on COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. is “Pamela Jean.”  However, the first time I heard it I thought that my iTunes had skipped, or that the album was over, and I was hearing Cheap Trick.  “Pamela Jean” really stands out as a great song, but it doesn’t have much in common with the more countrified-songs on the record.   So here I am, saying that the best song on the record is the one that seems to fit-in the least.  I guess that’s a crappy backhanded compliment to both the song and the record, and perhaps this is the fatal flaw that’s doomed COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. from ever being properly released.

And so, while COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  is a mind-blowing revelation,  it’s by no means the terrible album many have inferred it to be.  Hell, with all the hoop-la surrounding the album’s release (or lack thereof), the fact that it’s not an embarrassment comes as a relief.  I think this would be an awesome album to take along on a long, moonlight drive.  It’s a shame we all cant’ go to the store/iTunes and buy COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  but in the meantime take a listen to “Pamela Jean”.  Just don’t tell the label.

Zander and his two best friends: his dog Buddha and the hat that hides his receding hairline.

*Which, all you hard-core Cheap Trick fans know is from the band’s 1985 album STANDING ON THE EDGE.

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COUNTRY FUNK: 1969-1975

The British have a grand tradition of introducing Americans to American music.  When The Beatles landed in New York, the press asked the Fab Four what they most wanted to see in the States,  to which they famously replied: “Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.”   Some intrepid reporter then asked, without irony, “Muddy Waters, where is that?”

America is a big place and I guess we sometimes have trouble keeping track of the really good stuff.  Regardless, I was sitting in a plane reading the latest issue of Mojo magazine, that glorious bastion of British rock, when I happened upon a postage stamp-sized album review for COUNTRY FUNK 1969-1975.   Intrigued, I added the compilation onto my “to-listen” list and went about my vacation.  When I got home I promptly forgot about COUNTRY FUNK, until I picked up another music mag and saw it featured again.  After reading yet another positive review for the damn thing, but unable to find it on Spotify,  I decided to just bite the bullet and order it.

COUNTRY FUNK’s packaging designed by artist Jess Rotter is pretty schweet.

Which reminds me–record labels take note, if you want me to buy your album keep it off Spotify.  I love having every album at my fingertips, but when I get it in my head that I want to hear something and it’s not on Spotify I tend to whine, stomp my foot, and then go on Amazon and buy the damn thing (meaning you get my money).  But I digress.

COUNTRY FUNK 1969-1975 is a reissue put out by Seattle indie/hipster label Light In The Attic Records.  Besides putting new music, Light In The Attic has thing about digging out really awesome, really obscure music.  I’d never heard of them, but after seeing the care and attention to detail they put into their releases (at least this one) I’m itching to buy some more albums from them.

Essentially, COUNTRY FUNK is a hodgepodge of artists that walk the line between country, blues, gospel, and rock. The majority of artists featured on the album hailed from the South but wound up recording in California.  This juxtaposition between the grit of the South and the glitter of Hollywood forms the compilation’s central theme–and the very definition of country funk as a genre. The music is polished but soulful.  The blending of the best parts of black and white music creates a reese cup of awesomeness that’s thoroughly American.

I was only familiar with one of the album’s sixteen artists,* but I won’t lie 1970’s country isn’t my strongest area.  I’m 99.999% certain that these artists are obscure by most standards.  After listening to COUNTRY FUNK several times I desperately want to explore all of the artists catalogues, but I’m discovering that might take a bit of work (read: illegal downloading) because unfortunately this is music that time has forgotten,  which is a shame because every single track is a winner.

Standout tracks include “Georgia Morning Dew” by Johnny Adams, a bittersweet song about growing-up and moving away from one’s small town for the hustle and bustle of the big city.  Big horns and fuzzed-out guitars sandwich Adams’ remembrance of his early days in Georgia as he looks out at the early morning in L.A.  By the end of the song he’s painted such a charming picture of life in Georgia you just want to shout “Move back home!” which is exactly what he ultimately decides to do.

Johnny Adams, his eyes were on LA but Georgia was in his heart.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” by songstress Bobbie Gentry is like demonic version of “Son of a Preacher Man.”  The song, which is about the deflowering of a young country gal, is damn sexy.  Jim Ford’s “I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me” is groove from the other side of the war of the sexes.  More soul than country, Ford’s voice wails intensity to pure I’m amazed he isn’t a household name. Both Gentry and Ford are two artists I’m eager to hear more from, hopefully I won’t have to look too hard.

Bobbie Gentry…some lucky SOB got to make a woman out of her.

“Hello L.A., Bye-Bye Birmingham” by John Randolph Marr and “LA Memphis Tyler Texas” by Dale Hawkins are both celebrations of rising stardom and relocation.  Marr’s song details the tribulations of a up-and-coming musician trying to get to Hollywood (spoiler: it’s a little difficult).  The song’s protagonist has to do all sorts of things like hitch a ride with a biker and *gasp* take a two day job to get his guitar out of hock! “LA Memphis Tyler Texas” is almost an Vegas-style Elvis number about the three cities where Hawkins recorded the song.  It’s pretty fun and pretty funny.

Jess Rotter’s postal ode to the bearded-one, Jim Ford.

COUNTRY FUNK has a few less-than-fun serious moments, like Bobby Charles “Street People” which tackles the subject of homelessness.  Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” is a gospel number about the end of the world…which is also kind of a bummer.  Musically and lyrically Wray’s song reminds me of the Rolling Stones maraca-shaking ode to Satan, “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s an epic, good vs. evil number, complete with a nice, understated guitar solo.

The most surprising song on the compilation, however, is “Light Blue” by Bobby Darin.  It’s a fantastic song about depression and oncoming gloom.  According to the (fantastically written) liner notes, Darin was there the day Robert Kennedy was shot and killed.  He was so moved that he sold all his possessions and bought a trailer in the California backwoods, where he wrote this deeply dark, intense song. It’s an awesome, scary song made all the more awesome when one hears the transformation of Darin.  This is, after all, the man who co-wrote and sang the bath-time classic “Splish Splash.”  It’s cool to be able to actually hear something with depth from the man.  So, Mr. Darin, you’re officially redeemed.

As I’ve said, I’m really impressed with the care and attention Light In The Attic Records has taken with this release: the artist/song selection is magnificent,  the album artwork is really cool, and the CD booklet has a fantastic essay written by Jessica Hundley (whom I believe contributes to Mojo). This is far and away the best album that I’ve heard this year, and more importantly it’s introduced me to so many really cool artists that weren’t on my radar.  Hell, it introduced me to a whole genre.  In that regard, COUNTRY FUNK 1969-1975 breaks my heart and fills me with hope. It breaks my heart, because I’ve been living all these years without these wonderful songs! I’ve wasted so many years without “Hawg Frog” and “Piledriver.”  But it fills me with hope because as I get older, I become more jaded about the existence of “good” music.  Releases like COUNTRY FUNK prove that I haven’t heard everything and that there is still a lot of really cool old records for me to find.

I can’t recommend this record enough.

 

 

 

*And that was Bobby Darin of “Mack The Knife” fame, listed on the album as Bob Darin.

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“3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam

Inspiration, it is said,  can come from the most unlikely of sources.   Case-in-point: I heard an interesting interview with country-singer Dwight Yoakam today.  He was promoting his new album 3 PEARS, and he said that the title track was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison.  There was footage in the documentary of John Lennon goofing-off and wearing three pairs of glasses.  It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of moment, a throw-away bit of footage that stuck with Yoakam and inspired him to write a song.

As a music geek, and a student of humanity, I find these little anecdotes to be priceless nuggets.

Uno. Dos. Tres.

Yoakam talked about the duality of Lennon–how much he loved to joke but how sad he was inside.  The three glasses make an almost-mask, covering his face, a perfect metaphor for how Lennon used comedy to hide.  Yoakam’s song, called “3 Pears,” a joke-title no doubt an homage to how Lennon’s band chose to spell it’s name, is really good.

The song is a fun bit of hippie-country, the kind that’s sadly in short supply these days.  I really dig how Yoakam lyrically invokes Lennon with a couple of pseudo-psychedelic phrases.

My favorite:

“That means where you are is where you at
When your head is cold, to ṗut on a hat”

“3 Pears” is a shiny-happy song that really surprised me, and I’ll bet it’ll surprise you too.  Check out the rest of 3 PEARS while you’re at it–it’s a damn fine album.

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“Who” by David Byrne & St. Vincent

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I heard that David Byrne and St. Vincent had gotten together and made an album.  I just knew that I had to hear it.  A few months back I got on a Talking Heads-kick, so I was interested to find out if Byrne still had it.  And my it I mean: a propensity for the tasteful, the odd, and the tastefully-odd.

The Talking Heads were cultural anthropologists masquerading as a strange-sounding band.  It’s kind of a miracle to me that they were even popular in the 1980’s.  When I was revisiting their hits like “Burning Down The House,” “Wild Wild Life,” and the sublimely weird “Once In A Lifetime*,” I was struck by how un-pop The Talking Heads were. That they played on the radio along side Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen is utterly amazing to me.

Surely, I thought to myself before listening to “Who,” old-man Byrne has mellowed with age. Well fear not purveyors of all things freaky, David Byrne is still really strange.  I don’t really know much about St. Vincent except that she’s an indie-darling with a weird name who’s supposedly a really good guitar player.  Instead of being the chirpy song-bird I thought she was, I discovered that St. Vincent is more of a mysterious siren (color me curious about her solo-work).

Byrne and St. Vincent’s future so bright…they gotta wear shades.

The first song on LOVE THIS GIANT, “Who” is also the lead single.  It’s a daft and loopy number,  built almost entirely around horns and thumping drums (so much for St. Vincent’s guitar work).  Lyrically, “Who” is a series of semi-profound questions posed by Byrne, which is beautifully answered a single chorus from St. Vincent: “Who is an honest man?” It’s brilliant, catchy, auteur-pop that reminds me of fellow 80’s-freak Peter Gabriel’s solo-work.  LOVE THIS GIANT is a fantastic collaborative effort between the two artists, but “Who” is Bryne’s baby.  This one wormed it’s way into my heart, give it a listen and see if it doesn’t do the same to you.

Turns out Byrne still has it.  

*A song that I desperately need to analyze in a post all-to itself.

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New Album Round-Up #3: TEMPEST by Bob Dylan

A wise-man once said: Why review some albums, when you could review them all? Indeed.  Here is the third in my New Album Round-Up series:

TEMPEST by Bob Dylan:  I didn’t really like or get Dylan until it was way late. Like MODERN TIMES (2006) late.  Sure, he sounds like a Muppet and his songs are more mysterious than they probably need to be…but the man’s a genius when it comes to writing songs that work just as well as poems.  Think about your all-time favorite song–would it make a very good poem?  Chances are no, it would not.

Dylan’s always like long, rambly story-songs but his latest album TEMPEST takes things to a whole new level.  The album is nothing but long story-songs.  His voice even more craggy and ragged than usual.  The last two albums, the before-mentioned MODERN TIMES and TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE, have had a 1930’s/1940’s vibe to them.  TEMPEST seems more traditional folk/blues, with none of the period flourishes from before. I’ve read that TEMPEST is going to be the “last Dylan record” which is a shame because this doesn’t really feel like THE END. Of course, I would have no way of knowing what the end of Bob Dylan would sound/feel like.

The title references Shakespeare’s final play. Man, I really hope this isn’t the last Dylan album. Surely he has one more Christmas album in him…

Regardless, I’m not going to lie: this is pretty much for hard-core Dylan-ites.  Sure, there are a few tracks that might please a general audience, like the bluesy “Narrow Way.”  The song has my favorite line of the record: “If I can’t work up to you/you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.”  That’s both really funny and really poignant if you think about it.  This song seems to be written for any man who’s ever loved a woman way, way, way out of his league.  As awesome as this song is,  “Narrow Way” clocks in at over 7 minutes, which may test the patients of all but the super-devoted.

I guess you could say that about pretty much all of TEMPEST, which is a shame because there is a lot of really good lyrics peppered throughout the album.  Part of me wishes that someone had edited some of this material down–but to be honest, Dylan has earned a little indulgence. Both “Pay In Blood” and “Long Wasted Years” are fabulous anthems for the tired and crotchety that, quite frankly, would be less effective had they been shortened/watered down.  So pull up a chair and listen to grandpa Dylan sing you story.  Sure, he might prattle on a little too long, but when he’s good….he’s good.

Much has been made of “Roll On John,” the album’s last track.  Dylan’s song about John Lennon is actually pretty damn good.  He references several Lennon songs, including “A Day In The Life” in a way that would probably seem a bit cheesy, were it not THE Bob Dylan making the reference.  It’s an appropriately sad song, about a friend Dylan lost too soon.  Especially heart breaking:

“Tyger, Tiger burning bright

I pray the lord my soul to keep

In the forest of the night

Cover him over and let him sleep”

As “Roll On John” ended I felt as though I’d lost two music hero’s: Lennon and Dylan.  If this really is the final Bob Dylan album, then it’s also the end of a major-era.  Not only in music/art but in pop culture.  There has never been a time in my life where there wasn’t Bob Dylan.   Remember this day, folks.

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New Album Round-Up #2: CENTIPEDE HZ by Animal Collective

Keeping the manic-album reviewing train-a-rolling, here is New Album Round-Up #2!!!

CENTIPEDE HZ by Animal Collective:  Animal Collective are awesome for many reasons, but the biggest reason I love them is this–with each new album the band’s popularity grows and yet, they refuse to pander to dumb their music down.  Unlike say, Kings of Leon, who have opted to make shit-loads of money buy churning out Mom Rock, Animal Collective say “fuck it” and keep making the records they want to make.  I get the feeling that mainstream success never factored into their goals as a band.  Upon a brief, initial listen, I was pretty unimpressed with CENTIPEDE HZ.  I found it very dense and a bit uninviting.  Then I spent more time with it, and my appreciation has really grown for this record.

Great tunes. Terrible fucking album cover.

The songs are long and defy the conventional pop sensibility.  CENTIPEDE HZ is bright and busy, each song’s every nook and cranny is filled to the brim.  Standout tracks include “Applesauce” and “Today’s Supernatural.”  I’d like to say that the former is the closest thing to a single on the record, but I’m not going to kid you–none of these songs are singles.  Animal Collective’s music is so far removed from things like singles that it makes it really hard to talk (or write) about it.  It’s better to not think and let the freaky music wash-over you.

In many ways, CENTIPEDE HZ confirms what I’ve long-maintained: Animal Collective are the heir apparent to Brian Wilson.  Beach Boy fans who plug into CENTIPEDE HZ might not immediately understand, but think about it: this  type of sunny, long-form freakout married with intricate layers studio trickery screams B. Wilson.  Listen to the electro-Caribbean groove of “Father Time” if you need proof.  This is daring, inventive music that demands repeat listens for full appreciation.

My only complaint is that album cover.  I know that in 2012 album covers aren’t a big deal…but what the fuck?  Hands-down CENTIPEDE HZ has the worst album cover of the year, it’s super-ugly.

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New Album Round-UP #1: HOT CAKES by The Darkness

I feel like I’ve really dropped the ball lately concerning all the new albums that have come out over the last month/month and a half.  I wish I could say I’ve fallen behind because I live such a fast-paced, exciting existence.  The truth is: I’m a fat, lazy, music blogger.  To be fair, there has been an unusual glut of awesome, noteworthy album releases these last few weeks, but is that an excuse? My backlog started innocently enough: one awesome release (the new Darkness album) came out last month and before I knew it another had come out…then this week Bob Dylan and ZZ Top both put out new albums.

So in order for me to clear my dockett of album reviews, I’m going to knock ’em all out at once!  Presenting the Great New Album Round-Up!

The Darkness are hoping this record will sell like…their first album, PERMISSION TO LAND. What did you think I was going to say?

HOT CAKES by The Darkness:  For many people, The Darkness are a bit of a joke band.  And while they most certainly do not take themselves seriously (at all), The Darkness are a seriously awesome rock band.  The music and lyrics are always 100% solid.  After the band’s second album the band broke up…well sorta.  Lead singer Justin Hawkins left the band and formed a new band, Hot Leg.  The rest of The Darkness tried to soldier on without Justin, but it didn’t work-out.  When I heard the band had gotten back together and recorded a new record (and that Justin had cleaned up his act) I got both excited and worried.  Excited because a new Darkness album would be fantastic, but worried because so much time had passed since the last album.  Would the band be able to deliver the grand-rock hooks and cheeky shenanigans?

Turns out The Darkness still got it! HOT CAKES is a fantastic and FUN rock record.  Remember having fun?  It seems like everyone wants to be so serious lately, which is fine…I guess…but sometimes all I want to do is rock.  And smile.  The Darkness have delivered an awesomely upbeat album for these gloomy days of late 2012. The album opens with “Every Inch of You.”  The song is about Justin’s desire to give his audience…everything.  Despite the (semi-gross) goofy-entendre,  I really feel like Justin & Company are sincere in wanting to give us fans as much bang for our buck as possible.

The song begins with Justin singing:

“Baby I was a loser 
Several years on the dole
An English man with a very high voice 
Doing rock and roll 

There are seas of sleeveless T-shirts 
And cues around the block 
And every man wanting so 
Wants to do 
Suck my cock”

That pretty much sets the tone for the record: cartoonishly over-the-top and loaded with falsetto.  No Darkness album would be complete without a few obligatory Queen-references, and HOT CAKES as a few very Queen-like songs.  The super-catchy, sing-a-long “Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the quieter ballad of hope “Living Each Day Blind”  both recall Freddie Mercury’s famous band.    More blatantly, however is “Forbidden Love” which, unlike the other two songs, actually sounds exactly like something Queen recorded.  I think you could actually play “Forbidden Love” to a causal rock fan and they might not realize it isn’t Queen.

So is this a rip-off, homage, or tribute?  I guess that’s for you to decide.  Me, I see them as a little of all three.  Does it bother me that The Darkness owe so much to Queen?  No.  The Darkness aren’t pretending they’ve invented the wheel with these songs, they know their place in the history of music.  That respect makes it ok (unlike say, Brandon Flowers from The Killers who refuses to accept that his band has become a Springstein-lite band since their second record…and insists that each new Killers record is the second coming).

Worth mentioning is the awesome Radiohead cover at the end of the album. The Darkness have really outdid themselves with this one.  The band has taken the somber “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” off of THE BENDS and reworked it into a hard-charing rocker.  I strongly urge you to check out Radiohead’s version if you aren’t super-familiar with it and then give the Darkness cover a listen.  It’s hilariously awesome and the epitome of everything I love about this funny, brash, rocking band.

Basically, if you were a fan of the last two Darkness records you will love HOT CAKES.  Unfortunately, I feel this record isn’t going to win them very many new fans.  Sure, the songs are just as good as they were before–but I feel like a band like The Darkness has a very limited amount of appeal.   I don’t agree with the people who dismiss them, but I can see where they are coming from.  HOT CAKES is a great release from an awesome band.  If you dug them before get HOT CAKES.

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METAL MONDAY: Behold The Arctopus Brings the Noise!

I always say this but: it’s been too damn long since I’ve done a METAL MONDAY post. Today I want to share with you a little bit of insanity from Brooklyn, New York: Behold The Arctopus.  The band was formerly “Behold…The Arctopus” but are now operating with a different line-up, and have thus decided to drop the “…” in their name.

Behold The Arctopus’ Arctopus!!!

Regardless of what you call them, their bat-dung crazy sound has been described as “schizophrenic” and “radical.”  According to the band, they’re influenced by metal and…classical music?  Upon reading this I was intrigued, so I checked out their latest song “Disintegore” which is off their to-be-released album HORRORSCENSION, which come out at the end of next month (just in time for Halloween).

The band’s sound is experimental and prog-influenced.  The first few seconds of “Disintegore” reminded me a bit of Rush’s “YYZ,” for instance.  I‘m always keen to hear new and interesting sounds, and Behold The Arctopus seem to do nothing but generate those.  I dug a little bit into their back catalogue after stumbling upon them, and think their track “You Are Number Six” off their 2007 album SKULLGRID is the bees knees!

Even though I could see how many reading this might think all of this is a lot of bullshit noise, there has been a lot of work and thought put into these tunes.  Seriously, I know a lot of you don’t like/aren’t into metal, but give this band a listen: these guys are serious guitar heroes.  My finger tips ache just hearing some of the stuff they do.  And I’m not talking about guitar antics like that Steve Vai wank-off does either, this stuff has a real heart to it. Take a listen to “Exospacial Psionic Aura” if you don’t believe me:

Now, I’m sure a lot of metalheads are gonna tell me this isn’t “metal” because some Junior College-reject* isn’t screaming or Cookie-Monster growling over the music.  To those people I say: grow-up.  Sometimes I just wanna stroke my beard and listen to some awesome (and challenging) music without any of the childish metal-tropes/antics**.

Definitely check this band out if you’re into freak-outs, sonic assaults, proggy riffage, and intellectual vandalism.

Don’t be a snob, these guys are legit.

 

*Full disclosure: I attended two Junior Colleges. 

**Although those can be fun.

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Classic Albums Revisited: JESUS OF COOL

Snarky, sarcastic, New Wave-Brit: Elvis Costello.  Right?  Well that description could also apply to a one Mr. Nick Lowe.   During the mid-1970’s Lowe produced the first five Costello records, including the astounding MY AIM IS TRUE.  Little did many in the listening public know of the power behind Costello’s throne.  In 1978, Nick Lowe unleashed his first album as a solo-artist: JESUS OF COOL.  While many were no doubt caught off guard, those in the know had Lowe on their radar even before he was helping Costello.  During the early 1970’s Lowe was in the band Brinsley Schwarz, a fun little pub-band that quickly made a name for themselves by opening for bands bigger than the bar room circuit. Lowe bailed on them and entered into an on-again off-again relationship with another band called Rockpile.  That band recorded four albums, though they only put out one officially (the others were released as a pair of Dave Edmunds solo records, while another eventually came out as Lowe’s second album LABOUR OF LUST).

It’s not blasphemy if it’s true, people.

So it’s not understatement that Lowe’s a man with a complicated musical pedigree.  JESUS OF COOL has a similarly complicated history.  The album was released in the UK and then issued in the USA as PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE.  This is presumably because us Yanks have trouble with cheeky-references to Christ.  It was a gutless move on the label’s part, but for Lowe it was just par for the course.  It was also super-ironic considering the content of the album. You see, JESUS OF COOL is a power-pop record in the finest sense of the term.  Bright, hooky, and fun as hell…but the record is almost entirely about how greedy and petty music industry is.  Lowe’s bite is just as sharp as his pop sensibility and JESUS OF COOL is the kind of record you can’t help but sing along-to.  You can’t help but tap your foot and smile, then you realize  what he’s singing about…and you’re kind of horrified.

The song the best encapsulates this, and JESUS OF COOL as a whole,  is “Shake and Pop.”   The song is a hilarious story-song that chronicles the rising fame (and subsequent fucking) of a band by the music industry.  The best, and most telling, line of the song is:  “Arista says they love you/but the kids can’t dance to it.”  One can almost close their eyes and see a bunch of old, fat, out-of-touch suits saying just that to Elvis Costello…and Nick Lowe.  Besides name-checking a bunch of massive record labels, “Shake and Pop” also pokes fun at the fickleness of music journalists.  And while “Shake and Pop” might come off as brash, it’s tame compared to the biting-the-hand-that-feeds awesomeness of “I Love My Label.”  In an age when musicians were simply not heard (at all) without major corporate sponsorship, Lowe’s first album included this sarcastic love song dedicated to his record company.  There was no Internet or social media for Lowe to embrace or hide behind.

 In a way, JESUS OF COOL is a bit preverse–after all why would someone make a record if the music industry is so awful?  From the sound of it, Nick Lowe is a huge masochist.  Speaking of twisted sensibilities, there’s nothing more twisted than “Marie Provost.”  The song is about a famous silent-film starlet who died alone, a shadow of her former glory–a victim of alcohol and talkies.   She’s also famous partly because her pet dachshund Maxie was discovered to have nibbled on her bloated corpse.  Such a sad tale…of course Nick Lowe had to write a hilarious pop song about it! With lines (cheerily sung) like “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner/She never meant that much to me.”   There’s dark, and then their’s Nick Lowe-dark.  The only other person who comes close to this type of shiny-happy-horror is my idol Warren Zevon.

Not everything is dark and twisted on JESUS OF COOL, there are a number of straight-up rockers: “Heart of the City” and “So It Goes.”  Both songs are about as normal as Lowe can get and should have been Top-40 hits, of course they weren’t.  One can’t help but wonder if they didn’t chart because Lowe did some much poking fun at the music industry big-shots.   The UK album includes a live version of “Heart of the City” while the US version has the studio version.   Both are good, though the live version’s frantic energy (and double length) wear a bit thin.   It pains me to agree with the label, but I think the studio version is what belongs on record*.

“So It Goes” isn’t Lowe’s most famous song**, but it’s his best in my opinion.  “So It Goes” is a perfect, sugar-rush of a song.  The chugging, thundering drum beat and the rapid-fire lyrics (seemingly about evil concert promoters and diplomats) are about as great as power-pop gets.  It’s the kind of song you think you can sing entirely after hearing it once, even though you’ve only deciphered about 1/3 of it.  I guess that describes JESUS OF COOL as a whole.  More than just being a manifesto against his corporate masters or a clever pop record, JESUS OF COOL is a phenomenally entertaining record from a true pop master.

Still not convinced that JESUS OF COOL is worth your time?  What if I were to tell you that Lowe out-Bay-City-Rollers The Bay City Rollers on “Rollers Show.”  I remember back in the 1990’s, when The Backstreet Boys hit it big, thinking to myself “These songs suck, I could do that!”  Well back in the 70’s Nick Lowe felt the same way about The Bay City Rollers (kids: go look them up).  Unlike me, Nick actually went out and recorded what is ostensibly the greatest Bay City Rollers song of all-time.  Part hilarious parody, part serious-deconstruction of a horrible fad–“Rollers Show” actually works as a respectably awesome song despite itself.  I defy you listen to “Rollers Show” and not:

A). Smile

and

B). Cheerily sing along.

It’s one thing to attack faceless suits and thick-necked show promoters, but attacking helpless children  is taking it a bit too far…right?  Maybe you think Lowe should pick on people his own-size/talent?  Well how about this: on the same record he skewers The Bay City Rollers he also out-McCartney’s Paul McCartney. That’s right, SIR Paul McCartney*** 

The first time I heard “Nutted By Reality” I nearly choked on my Coca-Cola.  A truly strange song, on an album of strange songs, “Nutted By Reality” parodies Wings-era Macca.   Specifically the BAND ON THE RUN song “Mrs. Vanderbilt.”  Even after a causal comparison between “Mrs. Vanderbilt” and  “Nutted By Reality” it’s hard to deny that Lowe was taking the piss out of one of the planets all-time greatest songwriters.  Just like Paul’s “Band on the Run,” “Nutted By Reality” starts off like one song before hard-shifting into something else entirely.  Beginning as a bouncy song about Castro (?) the song then turns into a jangly-song about visiting his sister.  It’s so bizarre it’s downright divine.  The parody of McCartney is so spot-on it stops being a send-up and damn near becomes a love-letter to the former Beatles-solo work.

If you’re at all pop person you owe it to yourself to check out JESUS OF COOL.

*God did that hurt.

**That honor belongs to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” or “Cruel To Be Kind,” though most people don’t realize he wrote those songs as they’ve been covered ad nauseum.

***Though back in the 1970s he was “just” Paul.

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Wake the Dead: Putting Dead Musicians Back on Stage?

Everyone please welcome my good friend, Brian Conradi to the Defending Axl Rose family! Brian runs a really awesome blog devoted to all-things animated called CARTOONS FOR BREAKFAST.  He’s a great writer and I feel privileged to have him be the first outside person to contribute to DEFENDING AXL ROSE.  Without further ado…

Remember back in April at Coachella when a Tupac “hologram” performed onstage with Snoop Dogg?  To see a dead artist back onstage (and performing with another LIVE  artist) made my mind rush with possibilities.  A guitar duel between Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix?  AC/DC featuring both Brian Johnson AND Bon Scott?  A reunion of all four Beatles?  The sky was the limit.

Then I thought about it a little more: would it be that neat?  I mean, sure it’s cool to see the first time, but after a while, wouldn’t the novelty start to wear off?  Having been to Universal Studios in Orlando quite a few times, I can safely say that I’m no longer dazzled by all of the bleeding edge technology that goes into the attractions.  It’s fun, sure, but they don’t have that “Wow!” factor anymore.  Maybe that’s just me being cynical though.

Apparently Clint Eastwood didn’t get the memo.

More importantly, does it really honor the lives of these artists to bring them back to life for the sake of profit?  Digital Domain is the digital effects company that made the Tupac image, and they are already in the process of trying to corner the market on bringing dead people back to life. In their last quarterly report, CEO John Textor bragged to investors about creating a projection of Elvis and putting a show together around the country in places like Las Vegas and Branson, MO to boost the company’s revenue.  Never mind the fact that DD’s stock has dropped 75% in the last four months and that John Textor believes that animation students should pay to work on animated films for free.  There are literally hundreds of companies that can pull off this kind of parlor trick.  Recently, businessman Tony Reynolds told Yahoo! News that he is using another VFX company to create a Ronald Reagan projection that was originally going to be unveiled at the RNC in Tampa last week but had to be delayed.

I know that families and estates have control over the likeness rights of the departed, but is it right, particularly in the case of artists who spend their lives expressing themselves, to project them onto a stage and sing and dance to sell more tickets?  Recently, celebrities like Paul McCartney and Madonna have been making moves to try and prevent themselves from undergoing any posthumous publicity.  It was even a topic on “Talk of the Nation” today.  Now that we have the capability to use computers to literally recreate a person, the question of using a person’s likeness after his or her death is an important topic for those who live in the public eye.

Tupac can’t hear you cos…well you know…

I wish that I had been around to see Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin, and Frank Sinatra perform, but they are dead and never coming back.  I’ve made my peace with that.  No amount of digital puppetry can ever truly bring these visionaries back to life and truly let us know what it was like to be there.  The projection technology itself (a fancier version of  the 19th century “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion) is neat and could have some cool applications, but this just feels cheap to me.  One of the best things about these musicians is that they left behind a legacy of legendary music for us to enjoy forever.  We may never be able to see their faces or hear them live, but they have still left us a chance to peek into their souls and really see who they were.

To find out more on why John Textor deserves your scorn and plenty of other groovy stuff related to cartoons and animation, check out Brian’s blog Cartoons For Breakfast.

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