Tag Archives: Neil Young

Spring/Early Summer 2016 Album Lightning Round: A Whole Lotta Love

My buddy Ovidiu Boar over at Tangle Up In Music has a really nice recurring column where he combines a bunch of short album reviews into one long post. I’ve got a pretty large backlog of albums to review that came out over the last few months so I’m adopting (read: stealing) his format in order to purge myself of these albums. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so go check out Ovidiu Boar and his fantastic website.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a couple of albums I’ve been meaning to review:

WEEZER (White Album) by Weezer

Weezer_-_Weezer_(The_White_Album)

Weezer are one of those bands that I sometimes wish would just stop recording and retire. But every time I completely write them off the band turns up with a decent album. The last time Weezer surprised me was back in 2008 when they released THE RED ALBUM, and that was nearly a decade ago. Since that time, the band has continued to tour and released albums. None of them were very good/memorable and when they came out, I didn’t hear anyone talk about them. I’m not sure what’s going on with Weezer, but when the best song your band’s put out in 8 years is a cover of “Unbreak My Heart,” it might be time to hang up your boots. Then last month, when I was listening to the new Monkees album, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my favorite track was written by Rivers Cuomo. Which got me excited about the new Weezer album, which is again self-titled and will henceforth be referred to by its color designation. THE WHITE ALBUM doesn’t have anything on it as good as his Monkee’s song “She Makes Me Laugh,” but the album isn’t a disaster. In fact, there’s some pretty good stuff on it. Before I praise the band, however, I have to acknowledge that once again the single is the worst part of a Weezer album. “Thank God For Girls” once again features Rivers embarrassing-as-hell rapping. I’m not sure who keeps telling him he can pull this off, but I wish they’d be honest with him. Rivers: you can’t rap, please stop.

“(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” should have been the single! It’s a great pop ballad that actually would have fit nicely on that Monkee’s album I keep mentioning. A fun, throwback pop song, it’s the kind of track the band’s marketing should be pushing. The album opener, “California Kids” is another track I really enjoy.  Both of these songs have a Beach Boys-by-way-of-The Cars sound that I really dig it.

“Do You Wanna Get High?” has a catchy chorus that (subject matter notwithstanding) also would have made a good choice for an album single. Near the end THE WHITE ALBUM loses steam, particularly on “L.A. Girlz” which is as dumb as the track’s spelling. Thankfully, the album redeems itself with the  fantastically sublime campfire singalong closing track “Endless Bummer.” This is hands-down my favorite track on the album, mostly because it’s the kind of sad sack song Weezer used to be really good at writing.  Any song (or album for that matter) with the lyrics “kumbaya makes me violent/I just want this summer to end” can’t be anything but awesome. Weezer, I’m glad you’re still out there plugging away. Hopefully it won’t be another 8 years before they put out another good album.

 

PAGING MR. PROUST by The Jayhawks

939ef47004151915970f6a7067007411

The Jayhawks are one of those great 90’s college rock bands I don’t ever hear enough people talk about. I’m not exactly sure why they never reached the same legendary status of their peers R.E.M, but they really should have become household names. The last Jayhawks album I listened to was RAINY DAY MUSIC from 2003, which if you haven’t heard is fantastic and worth checking out. The Jayhawks are an Americana/Folk-Rock band that sometimes sound an awful lot like Neil Young & CSNY so if you’re a fan of that kind of music, The Jayhawks are probably your next favorite band.

PAGING MR. PROUST features the same brilliant harmonies and guitar playing one would expect to find on a Jayhawks album, but with an extra shade of darkness. I’m not sure how to explain it, but this music reminds me of autumnal sunset. There’s a cool edge bleeding into the band’s warmth and a lonely feeling permeates the album. PAGING MR. PROUST opens with “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” a song drenched in 60’s era folk. The harmonies kick in and I suddenly remembered why I love this band so much. “Lovers of the Sun” with it’s quiet melancholy is achingly beautiful and my favorite track on the record. My second favorite song is the harder edged “Comeback Kids,” which is a great love song that isn’t afraid to sound a little spooky. Another standout track, “The Devil In Her Eyes” features a stratospheric guitar solo at the end that recalls Mr. Young’s PSYCHEDELIC PILL record from a few years back.  “Dust of Long Dead Stars” with it’s Romantics-esque guitar riff is another standout track.

Not everything on the album fires on all cylinders, and there are sadly a few duds on the album. I have tried to love “Lost the Summer” but just can’t connect with it. The track’s intentionally cold, detached feel is no doubt the barrier preventing me from enjoying it. I can intellectually see that it’s great, with some fantastic guitar work, but it just doesn’t move me. Similarly, the scratchy/glitchy sounding “Ace” is more filler and less album track. I’m not sure why the band felt that this needed to be included on PAGING MR. PROUST. Still, these minor blemishes can’t distort the overall beauty of this Jayhawks album.

 

THE GETAWAY by Red Hot Chili Peppers

34433F5D00000578-3592170-image-a-1_1463440052471

I nearly copied and pasted my opening paragraph from my Weezer review. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are yet another 90’s band that I sometimes think should just give up the ghost and retire as legends. I found their last album, 2011’s I’M WITH YOU, to be pedestrian and highly forgettable. The band’s last truly great album was 1999’s CALIFORNICATION (I really liked parts of STADIUM ARCADIUM but being a bloated double-album take it down a few notches in my book), which if you’re keeping score was a really long time ago. I’ve never really been a real big Chili Peppers fan, but back in 2012 and 2013 the band released a bunch of songs recorded during the I’M WITH YOU sessions–songs that weren’t featured on the album. These songs, collected as I’M BESIDE YOU, are some of the best songs I’ve ever heard from the band. I actually need to sit down and do a write-up on these tracks because they are outstanding. So, these amazing b-sides are what piqued my interest for THE GETAWAY.

How is the album? It’s pretty good. Nothing on the album is as great as those b-sides from 2012/2013, but there are some good stuff on THE GETAWAY. The title track is a great, classic late-era Peppers-sounding track. With a funky beat and that distinct electric bass that’s come to define the band, it starts the album off right. Sadly the album can’t maintain this momentum and becomes a bit underwhelming, with one too many un-funky tracks for my liking. Besides the aforementioned “The Getaway,” I also enjoyed the equally good “Dark Necessities.”

And while the album never drops off, never to regain the heights of that one-two-punch, there are good tracks sprinkled throughout the rest of the album. For example, I enjoyed “Detroit” the band’s love letter to that hardscrabble Michigan city. The buoyant “We Turn Red” sounds like a single waiting to happen, it’s a great song that recalls the band’s earlier efforts. I wish the bulk of the album had been as energetic, the only other track on THE GETAWAY that comes close to being as interesting is the shimmering dance track”Go Robot.”And while I don’t think it’s fantastic, it’s worth checking out the album closer “Dreams of a Samurai” which besides being very strange, seems to reference the recent death of Scott Weiland.

Sadly, I don’t think I can recommend THE GETAWAY but there’s enough interesting stuff on the album that I also can’t outright dismiss it. If you’re a diehard fan you’ll probably be pleased enough with the record, everyone else should just stick to the singles. And, of course, stay tuned for that post on those amazing b-sides the band put out a few years ago.

 

That’s it for now. I imagine I’ll have to do one more of these to get myself fully caught up. Chime in below if you’ve heard any of these albums and agree/disagree with me (I love hearing how wrong I am).

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Southern Complexities: Lynyrd Skynyrd & Race

I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but when I was growing up I always found Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those bands that always seemed to have  good songs on (classic rock) radio but was generally unlikeable. The reason Lynyrd Skynyrd was unlikeable was simple: they were stupid, racist hillbillies. The band embraced elements of Southern culture that made me uncomfortable, like the Confederate flag. One of their most popular songs was about a redneck State and endorsed a racist governor! But man, were those songs good.  Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those bands I’d appreciated from afar.

Then about a year ago I heard “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio. Rather than dismiss the song outright, I decided to actually listen to the lyrics. Being a recovering English major, I decided to apply the same techniques of literary analysis I’d use to fake-understand Coleridge to try to fake-understand Lynyrd Skynyrd. It turns out that listening to a rock song via a fuzzy FM radio station is not the best way to study lyrical depth. I decided to go home and pull the lyrics up online and listen to the song again.  Thus began my slow descent into studying Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m going to write a whole lot more words, but for those with little patience (or interest) let me sum up my rambling tirade thusly: Lynyrd Skynyrd, it turns out, was not the band you think they were. I don’t think there’s a band more commonly misunderstood that Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Lynyrd Skynyrd hailed from the South, and with that comes some complicated baggage, but I wouldn’t call them racists. The band wrote a lot of really fantastic, really surprising songs. The amazing part is that I didn’t come to this conclusion after hearing some buried b-side or un-heard deep album cut. The opposite is actually true: Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote and recorded fantastically genre-subverting rock songs that became massive hits!

There are three areas where the uneducated have Lynyrd Skynyrd all wrong: race, guns, and drugs. The band’s image, along with it’s membership, has shifted and changed over the decades so let me be clear as to what incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd I refer to in this essay. As most of you know, in 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd was involved in a devastating plane crash that killed a great number of people.  The Lynyrd Skynyrd that I’m writing about was the original band, fronted by singer Ronnie Van Zant, who essentially ceased to exist after this terrible plane crash.  The band cobbled together from the crash survivors and Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, is Lynyrd Skynyrd in name only as far as I’m concerned.  I will explain my specific reasoning for this later, but to put it simply: Lynyrd Skynyrd (1964-1977) were anything but stupid, racist hillbillies…the post-crash band, while not stupid hillbillies, tend to embrace the stereotypes commonly associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Plus the songs aren’t a tenth as good, so there’s that.  This first post will specifically examine Lynyrd Skynyrd and race.  If people are interested I’ll post the others on guns and drugs.

LynyrdSkynyrd

Just a couple ‘o good ‘ole boys.

Look, I’m not going to attack or defend the Confederate flag.  I was born and raised in Missouri, a State that neither the North nor South seems to want to claim as their own. Personally, I wouldn’t own a Confederate flag but that said, I don’t think there’s a single flag on Earth that isn’t soiled by oppression and blood to some degree. Maybe if I’d been raised in a true Southern State I’d be able to understand the whole Confederate flag thing. Musically, Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing straight-up black music.  I don’t mean that in the way that we all know that rock music is basically a watered-down version of the blues…I mean Lynyrd Skynyrd is basically a blues band. Oh sure, the band is hailed as pioneering the so-called southern-rock genre, but what is that but the blues played by white folks (and maybe with a twang)?

How unfortunate.

How unfortunate.

The bands blues roots don’t necessarily prove the band wasn’t racist, but I find it difficult to believe a bunch of kids would grow up and sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd if they hated black people. Further proof that the band wasn’t a pack of racist hillbillies can be found in their song “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” off their second album SECOND HELPING (1974).  The song is about a kid who hunts up spare change in order to pay a local guitarist to play him a song.  “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” celebrates both the blues and the many faceless people who practice it’s harsh ways (and die penniless). Is the character of Curtis Loew the best depiction of a southern black man? Probably not, Loew’s a drunk who appears to do nothing all day but wait for white kids to bring him money so he can buy more cheap wine. But Loew, who is seen as “useless” by society at large was the “finest picker to ever play the blues” according to the narrator of the song. I think “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” which is supposedly based on a couple of people the Van Zants’ knew growing up, is actually a pretty good metaphor for what happened to bluesmen in this country.  Revered by young, white rock stars, American culture at large ignored our treasure trove of blues musicians. How many phenomenally great artists died penniless or lived on incomes subsidized by royalty checks from guys like Eric Clapton who covered their songs?

Okay, so Lynyrd Skynyrd liked the blues, going so far to write a song about how sad it was that most people ignored brilliant blues musicians: what about “Sweet Home Alabama”?  “Sweet Home Alabama” isn’t the terrible racial albatross many think it is. For starters, the most important fact that people seem to miss about Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Sweet Home Alabama” is this: Lynyrd Skynyrd are from Jacksonville, Florida.  So if the band is from Florida, why did they write a song called “Sweet Home Alabama”? Two words: Neil Young.

In 1970, Neil Young wrote a song called “Southern Man” for his classic (and fantastic) album AFTER THE GOLD RUSH.  “Southern Man” is a fiery indictment of the terrible racism that pervaded in the American South.  The song mentions slavery, racism, cross burning: all the stuff white Southerners love to talk about. Young’s song is seemingly about one “Southern Man” but really points the finger at an entire region of the country. Now if Neil Young has just recorded “Southern Man” we might not have “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Young penned another song called “Alabama” that attacked the State who was governed by the infamously pro-segregationist governor George Wallace. Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” both as a response to Young’s two songs.  “Sweet Home Alabama” mentions both Young by name and alludes to his song “Southern Man,” the song is about Alabama because Neil Young singled Alabama out, not because the band is from Alabama. A surface reading of the song suggests that Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t care for Canadian Neil Young picking on the State and that “Well I hope Neil Young will remember/a southern man don’t need him around any how.” Equally, the song appears to endorse governor Wallace…or does it?  The lyrics state: “In Birmingham they love the governor/Now we all did what we could do/Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?/Now tell the truth.” These lyrics suggest that Lynyrd Skynyrd is in support of Governor Wallace and his racist agenda, right? Possibly, but Lynyrd Skynyrd might also be fucking with us.

Ugh. There's that damn flag again.

Ugh. There’s that damn flag again.

For starters, Birmingham is not the capital of Alabama…Montgomery is the State capitol.  Why is this a big deal? Rather than mentioning Montgomery, the seat of power, the song mentions the State’s largest city.  What was going on in Birmingham?  The state was full of civil unrest in the 1960’s but a lot of the worst stuff happened in Birmingham.  The police used water cannons and attack dogs to try and stop protesters, including Martin Luther King Jr.  Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant pointed out in an interview in 1975 that the line “In Birmingham they love the governor” is immediately followed up by “boo, boo, boo” by the backing vocals. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s somewhat puzzling mention of the then-recent Watergate scandal suddenly makes sense: Lynyrd Skynyrd is not bothered by Watergate because they didn’t do anything wrong, that was an evil act purported by a politician. Likewise, Lynyrd Skynyrd is suggesting that things aren’t as black and white (pun intended) as Young suggests in his song and that not all Southern men love Governor Wallace.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song also suggests that all Southerners cannot be lumped into one category.  In point of fact, that kind of thinking is just as wrongheaded as the racism that Young was rallying against.  In this context, the “we all did what we could do” line appears to be a reference to all the protests that took place in Birmingham. The problem of “Sweet Home Alabama” is that the people hoisting it up as the redneck song to end all redneck songs aren’t as smart as the people who wrote it. Lynyrd Skynyrd proves the old adage about judging books by their covers to be correct: just because someone singing has a Southern accent doesn’t mean they aren’t literate and possessing wit. Further mudding the waters of “Sweet Home Alabama” is the fact that Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd were not enemies as many people think, but actually were friendly admirers of each other.  Many fans that missed the irony in “Sweet Home Alabama” also failed to notice that Ronnie Van Zant frequently wore Neil Young t-shirts. He’s even wearing one on the cover of the band’s 1977 album STREET SURVIVORS.

Van Zandt is third from the left.

Van Zandt is third from the left.

A better look at the same shirt.

A better look at the same shirt.

Likewise, Neil Young sported a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt several times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Neil Young wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

Neil Young wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

Much like the Confederate flag, “Sweet Home Alabama” has a complicated history and has different meanings for different people.  That the song has confounded generations of people is surprising, but perhaps the death of song’s chief architects explains why the song’s obtuse meaning has remained a bit of a secret for so long. Worth noting, in 2009 the State of Alabama started using the phrase “sweet home Alabama” on its license plates.  Given that both potential readings of the song are generally unflattering to Alabama, one wonders why the song would be used on anything official from the State.  It’s impossible to know the inner workings of other men’s hearts, but based on “Sweet Home Alabama” I wouldn’t characterize Lynyrd Skynyrd as racists. The band members grew up in another era, I’m sure they had some degree of prejudice (which everyone has to some extent). That said, for a band making millions of dollars off a Southern image, I think the band had a progressive attitude when it came to the subject of race.  A large part of the band’s attitude, no doubt, stemmed from their love of music—specifically blues music. Consider this the next time someone dismisses popular music as “unimportant.”

Tagged , , , , , , ,

ROCK N’ READ: WAGING HEAVY PEACE

I just finished reading Neil Young’s 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace and I’m feeling really conflicted.  The best memoirs are the ones that feel like you’re sitting with the author listening to their stories.  And while Waging Heavy Peace fails on a number of levels, one thing it does well is capturing the essence of Young.  Reading the book totally felt like having a conversation with Neil Young, albeit a really one-sided conversation.  I really wanted to recommend the book, but Young’s scattershot recollections and constant jumps through his life’s chronology make Waging Heavy Peace a tough read for anyone not already a die-hard fan.  I’m okay with a non-linear account of one’s life, but it has to be done correctly and Young isn’t up to the task. Young also tends to refer to his famous friends as…well his friends.  Paul McCartney is “my friend Paul” which is really cool and down to earth, but also very hard to suss-out when reading a book about someone’s life in which they meet a lot of famous and un-famous people.

9780142180310_custom-15a4e7fe3c7e98a8179ae2f30cc37dfcdcde8225-s6-c30

Also frustrating is the fact that a sizeable chunk of the book is devoted to Young’s passion projects: a “revolutionary” new audio system called PureTone (which is later renamed to Pono), an extensive collection of Lionel model trains, old cars that Young buys online, the Lincvolt electric car he’s building/financing to raise awareness about fossil fuels. Like a timeshare meeting where you’re given a free vacation, if you can sit through Neil’s PureTone pitches you’re free to wander about his strange life.

I don’t mind a legacy artist (as he describes himself) indulging himself and talking up his pet projects, but Young brings these things up multiple times.  Worse, he usually just regurgitates what he’s already said about them.  This gives the book a feeling as though it was patched together and not edited very well.  The looseness of the book, indeed the reason the book exists, is that Young has learned he is on the cusp of dementia. So I’ve decided to cut Young some slack in regards to the repetition in some of the book.  In the beginning, Young explains that he broke a toe and stopped smoking marijuana on the advice of his doctor.  These two events forced the legendary musician to temporarily give up music, so he sat down and wrote Waging Heavy Peace. I really did enjoy Young’s discussion of sobriety and it’s effect on his music.  He explains that he’s never written anything without being under the influence and is worried he won’t be able to access the “cosmic” world of music without drugs.  It’s a valid worry and it was interesting to read about his hopes and fears regarding his music.

As the book plods along, he writes about how long it’s been since he’s smoked or drank and correlates that to how long it’s been since he’s written a song.  Neil’s album PSYCHEDELIC PILL was my number one album of 2012 and I hope he wrote and recorded it after/during the writing of this book, but it’s not made clear.  In fact, throughout the book he talks about getting Crazy Horse back together to cut an album, but never writes about doing it…so I’m thinking the album was done after the book.  It would have been nice for him to add an extra chapter explaining how it went.  I think PSYCHEDELIC PILL is one of Young’s best albums, so if he did it sober that would be so amazing.

I admire the guts it takes to write an account of ones life, and despite being a notorious curmudgeon, Young frequently acknowledges his mistakes.  This more than honest look at himself and his career is what saves Waging Heavy Peace and refreshingly, at no point in the book does Neil Young come across as anything but authentic.

I didn’t pick the book up just to read the story about his relationship with Kurt Cobain, who famously quoted Young in his suicide letter, but at the time the book was published there were stories in the media that led me to believe this topic would be addressed in Waging Heavy Peace Sadly, Cobain is mentioned fleetingly—like just one sentence.  It was disappointing, but that’s not Young’s fault.   Young’s experiences as an illegal (undocumented) alien at the start of his career were fascinating.  I knew that Young was Canadian at a time when it was uncool to be from the Great White North, but I had no idea he snuck into the country and was terrified each and every time he got behind the wheel of a car.  He had no license or Social Security card for many years and to this day still has pangs of fear when he sees a Sheriff’s patrol car.

Waging Heavy Peace reminded me a lot of Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography Chronicles Volume 1.  Like Dylan’s book, Waging Heavy Peace is an unconventional and unfinished look at a legendary life.  On the final page Young says that there will be future books, which may someday surface and shed more light Young’s remarkable career.  I’m not sure if I’d pick up Young’s next book, at least, not for $30.00. If you’re a fan and still haven’t picked the book up I definitely recommend you do.  For everyone else, I’d say familiarize yourself with Young’s music and maybe pick up another biography before wading into Waging Heavy Peace.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My Top 10 Albums of 2012

Why have end of year lists have grown in popularity over the past 10 years? What does it say about us as a species that we clamor for and around arbitrary lists created by people we don’t know? My own personal theory is that the popularity of end of year lists serves two functions:

1. Validation. Obviously we like having someone tell us that our opinions are the right ones, and seeing our favorite things on someone else’s end of year list does that. It’s comforting to know that we agree with others but it’s even more comforting when that other is a critic of stature like David Wild or Roger Ebert.

And

2. Facilitating our laziness. Why go out into the world looking for the best music, books, films, or art when someone in a black turtleneck can do all the heavy lifting for us? End of year lists distill a year’s worth of media into an easy to consume morsel. I’ve met people who base all their film watching on top critics end of year lists.

I’m guilty of both: I like looking at end of year lists to see my own personal tastes validated AND I like to use them to discover things I was too lazy to find on my own. I don’t think there’s anything evil or wrong about end of year lists, but they do tend to get out of hand this time of year. I think reading end of year lists are an okay use of your time…but I think making one of your own is a far better way to kill a few hours.

Why? Well, I think a great end of year list functions as a kind of yearbook. When I sat down to write my Top 10 Albums of 2012 list I started to simply list all the albums that really knocked my socks off this year. But then I started to consider things like “Am I still listening to these albums?” and “Do I see myself still thinking about/revisiting these albums in future years?” That made things a little more difficult, which I rather liked (I always do fancy a challenge).

So once I had my albums that moved me (or whatever) and then removed the ones I wasn’t still listening to, I found I had a much shorter list. I took that list and compared it to my blog for the past 12 months, chiefly–how many of these albums did I get around to writing about? What did I say? In the case of one album in particular, I found that I wrote about it A LOT. I factored that in when arranging my list from #10 to #1.

What was the most difficult part of making this list? Figuring out what actually came out in 2012 and what came out in 2011 that I only discovered this year. There were a TON of really great records that came out at the end of last year that I sadly only discovered this year—meaning they could not appear on my list. The record I most wanted to put on my list was Metronomy’s THE ENGLISH RIVIERA. That was probably the album I enjoyed the most this summer, but wouldn’t ya know it? It came out last year. I ran into a lot of that while making this list.

Please read this list, compare it to your own personal tastes (feel slightly validated) and then use it to lazily fill-in the parts of 2012 you overlooked or missed. Once you’ve done all that, jot down your own best of 2012 list, I think you’ll find it’s an interesting mental exercise and a fantastic way to reevaluated the music you’ve heard this year. Maybe even slip me copy of your list in the comments section below (I won’t judge).

With all that in mind, I present my Top 10 Albums of 2012:

10. HARMONICRAFT by Torche. Arguably the stupidest genre name of all-time is sludge metal. I don’t even know what that means. Torche’s album HARMONICRAFT is supposed to be sludge metal, but to me it just sounds like awesomely melodic hard rock. “Roaming” and “Kicking” are brilliant hard-rockers that sound like Jane’s Addiction meets The Cult. The album is dark and has a rough edge while still being catchy and fun. If you’re like me, you’re always looking for a hard rock that isn’t super-stoopid or endless banshee screaming: HARMONICRAFT strikes a nice balance between hard rock and pop. The guitar work is great, and so is that Brony-filled rainbow wonderland on the front of the album.

Torche-Harmonicraft-

9. COBRA JUICY by Black Moth Super Rainbow. I’m not really into electronica, but every now and then an artist comes out that manages to combine the best of rock/pop and dance music. Experimental music is really hard to like and even hard to recommend, but Black Moth Super Rainbow really pull it off on COBRA JUICY. It’s a neon-rave-up that’s got rock soul. Songs like “Windshield Smasher” and “Hairspray Heart” are what the second Sleigh Bells album should have sounded like: aggressively noisy yet super-groovy. Worth noting, this one was waaay off my radar, but was pointed out to me by my super-cool friend over at TAKEN BY SOUND, which is a really cool indie-rock music blog.

Black-Moth-Super-Rainbow1

8. WRECKING BALL by Bruce Springsteen. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are that Bruce Springsteen is on this list. I was listening to Little Steven’s Underground Garage and Little Steven (who is more than a little biased, being in the E-Street Band) talked up the record and played “Easy Money.” Before I could dismiss WRECKING BALL outright, I heard “Easy Money” and became instantly hooked. The whole album has a very electric-folk/Old-Timey feel to it. WRECKING BALL is Springsteen’s recession album, which while not much fun, does provide an excellent palette for a rough and tumble artist like The Boss. “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Death To My Hometown” are great, hardscrabble songs that could work for The Great Depression or the late 2010’s. Through it all, Springsteen remains a symbol of art nourishing us through the hardest of times. These are the times when a bard of his stature is most desperately needed. He didn’t disappoint.

SPRINGSTEEN_WRECKING_BALL_7x7_site-500x500

7. SLOW DAZE by Blonde Summer. Technically these 5 songs are an EP and not an LP, but after listening to SLOW DAZE on virtual infinite repeat this summer: I’m promoting it to full LP status. Blonde Summer’s amazingly breezy, super-fun album reminded me what it feels like to be young and just enjoying the warmth of summer: and that was just the title track. The rest of SLOW DAZE is top-notch indie-rock that’s fun (“Robots on Command”) and heartfelt (“Walking in Space”). Minimal and echo-y, SLOW DAZE is like a short romp with an incredible lover—it doesn’t last very long, but the warm glow it gives you lasts and lasts. Hell, I’m still tingling from the noise-rock of “December,” and it’s actually December now. SLOW DAZE owned my summer and has made me super-eager to see what these guys do next. But for now, we’ll always have this summer.

Blonde-Summer-Slow-Daze-sm

6. LONERISM by Tame Impala. Pound for pound, LONERISM has more cosmic-freak-out-otherness than any other album on this list. If you’ve ever wanted to get high without drugs, grab a pair of headphones and take this album into a dark room. Close your eyes and prepare to go on adventure. Imagine Oasis and The Flaming Lips doing a shit ton of LSD and then merging into one band: that’s LONERISM. “Endors Toi” and “Elephant” shatter your mind and then blow away the pieces. I really liked BEARDS, WIVES, DENIM by Pond, which is essentially Tame Impala, but overall I think LONERISM is the stronger, more accessible record. But don’t take my word for it: go sit in the dark tonight with this album.

impala

5. CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO by Guided By Voices. One of my all-time favorite bands came back, and they came back in a big way this year. Not only did the original GBV line up return to tour, they released not one…not two…but three incredible records. When was the last time a band came back after disbanding and put out ONE good album? Exactly. Robert Pollard is a rock ‘n roll Jesus (sorry Kid Rock). Picking which of the three albums to put on this list was hard, but also kinda easy: of all their 2012 records, this is the one I rock out to the most. The title track is probably the greatest GBV “single” in a decade. “Keep It In Motion” and “Forever Until It Breaks” are icing on the cake. All GBV albums have short, micro-songs that many people dismiss, but CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO has the best short Pollard nuggets I’ve heard in a long time (“Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head”). And don’t get me started on the awesome, Who-like “Billy Wire.” Okay, I’ll get started on it: “Billy Wire” fucking rocks my socks and makes me feel like I’m a badass Mod seeing a super young/virile Who tear up a small English nighclub. Long live GBV.

Guided-By-Voices-Class-Clown-Spots-A-UFO-COVER-1024x1024

4. MAJOR by Fang Island. Fang Island does what Torche does in that, they offer up heavy riffs with strong melodies. The difference is that Fang Island is more indie rock than mosh pit. “Sisterly” is so hard-charging but at the same time sweet. I don’t mean “Dude that’s sweet,” I mean little kitten hanging on a clothesline sweet. Fang Island are so cool they don’t care what you think of their earnestness. These guys are serious musicians, too. Even if you don’t usually go for instrumental rock, you’ll dig their instrumental “Dooney Rock.” It’s an interesting, tasteful, non-wankfest that will win over even the most jaded music fan. Fang Island is equally heavy and gentle; it’s hard indie rock for sensitive hearts.

Fang-Island-Major

3. LOVE THIS GIANT by David Byrne & St. Vincent. Who knew that teaming up the dude from Talking Heads and that weird indie-chick St. Vincent would yield such a good harvest? The bombastic lead track “Who” is real stunner, but it’s the one-two-punch of two unlikely freaks getting together and letting their freak flags fly that elevates LOVE THIS GIANT beyond “Who.” This is Byrne’s strongest post-Talking Heads work, hands down. It wasn’t that I’d written him off so much as I just didn’t bother to really think too much about David Byrne at all. LOVE THIS GIANT re-establishes Byrne as a relevant artist with a lot more to say. I wasn’t super familiar with St. Vincent prior to LOVE THIS GIANT, but I’m learning. That she’s half his age and still manages to hold her own in the presence of such a legend is no small feat. I still get chills every time I hear “Optimist.” So, in summary: the triumphant return of one of rocks most unlikely superstars plus a rising indie-songstress plus crazy horns equals LOVE THIS GIANT. It’s a record that you put on and feel refreshed, challenged, and puzzled by.

david-byrne-and-st-vincent-111366-love-this-giant

2. A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH by Van Halen. Nobody thought that a new Van Halen album was going to be a dismal failure more than me. Go back and check the endless jaded, negative, anti-Wolfgang posts. I’m a big man, I can admit when I’m wrong. Sure, “Tattoo” fucking sucks. It’s the worst song on the album and it’s slightly embarrassing…but everything else on A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH works. Maybe the songs are recycled from decades long since past, but so what? They were still re-worked and recorded by the Van Halen of today, and they don’t disappoint. It’s like it’s 1984 all over again: big choruses, crazy solos, thumpin’ drums, super-bravdo, etc. Van Halen don’t reinvent the wheel so much as get it rolling again, and thank God…because rock was starting to get so dismally boring. “Blood and Fire” recalls the pure adrenaline of “Panama.” “You and Your Blues” is like an update of “Unchained.” Van Halen shouldn’t work in 2012, but somehow they do. My favorite track, the one that gets the most play at the gym is the stupidest: the frivolous “Stay Frosty.” Why does “Stay Frosty” continue to get played? Probably because it’s a straight up rocker that’s fun and funny. While I was busy being jaded, Van Halen was busy partying. At a certain point, it’s easier to just give-in and love them. So you win guys, A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH rules.

van halen

1. PSYCHEDELIC PILL by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. I am completely and utterly in awe of this album. Long, meandering, and epic, PSYCHEDELIC PILL was the one album this year that could have been released in 1968 or 1970 not no one would have blinked. Not because it sounds like it’s from that period in time, PSYCHEDELIC PILL is truly a record out of time: intensely personal and yet also very distant and spacy. This is a folk record. This is a jam-band record. This is a singer-songwriter album created by a full band. “Walk Like A Giant” is the work of an incredibly powerful wizard, hurling lightening bolts of rock. I had no idea Neil Young still had it in him to create such a potent work of pure genius. This doesn’t even sound like a comeback it sounds like he never left. Those who scoff at the albums longer cuts, of which there are a few, are missing the point. Like I said in my original review: “the album opens with “Drifting Back,” a 27 minute-long song that’s acts as a kind of sonic air lock, decompressing the listener into the album’s atmosphere. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that’s a time machine. I like that better because PSYCHEDELIC PILL sounds like lost 1970’s record, with the lengthy “Drifting Back” serving as a trippy time tunnel to the past.” The free flowing extended jams are the destination, not the journey. PSYCHEDELIC PILL is an intricate album that I predict will endure as a kind of sonic evergreen, which will be studied and appreciated for decades to come. Do yourself a favor and check out this once-in-a-generation masterpiece.

untitled

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

PSYCHEDELIC PILL by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Short and sweet. There’s something to be said about a masterful economy of length.  Long things, whether they are books, films, or albums tend to intimidate us.  Our lives are all so busy and hectic, there doesn’t seem to be time for anything substantial anymore.  Short can be sweet, but sometimes you have to kick back and ramble.

Psychedelic Pill: like trippy Pony Express.

At 67 years old, Neil Young should be slowing down.  He should be basking in the glory of his recently published memoir, WAGING HEAVY PEACE.  Young should be doing greatest hits concerts for $150 a pop to a sea of balding, gray heads.  But Neil Young wouldn’t be Neil Young if he didn’t have a bit more on his agenda. I can’t believe it, but in 2012 Neil Young has released his finest record.

Note that I didn’t say perfect or most commercial or the record I’d recommend to my friends; but PSYCHEDELIC PILL is without a doubt Neil Young’s finest record to date.  It’s a wild and wooly album, full of long and intricate songs that manages to perfectly instill the very essence of Young.  I don’t think that one double-album can totally encapsulate an artist as varied and masterly as Neil Young, but PSYCHEDELIC PILL does an amazing job showcasing why he still matters.  These are not gentle, old-man-telling-you-a-story-from-his-rocking-chair songs.   Neil Young & Crazy Horse are not in grandpa-mode at all on this album; PSYCHEDELIC PILL is a rocker.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about this album is because it’s long and intimidating. The album opens with “Drifting Back,” a 27 minute-long song that’s acts as a kind of sonic air lock, decompressing the listener into the album’s atmosphere.   Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that’s a time machine.  I like that better because PSYCHEDELIC PILL sounds like lost 1970’s record, with the lengthy “Drifting Back” serving as a trippy time tunnel to the past.  I can tell you that this album is a classic and will stand the test of time because it sounds neither vintage nor modern.  Listening to PSYCHEDELIC PILL, it’s impossible to really get a feel for when it was recorded, that’s the very epitome of timeless.

Immediately following the long “Drifting Back” we’re treated to the title cut, “Psychedelic Pill” which serves as a short palate cleanser of soaring, fuzzy guitar tones.  It’s a welcomed gulp of pop before Young plunges us back into the lengthy “Ramada Inn.”   That song, which focuses on the later years of an alcoholic, veers off into long tangents of guitar that walks the fine line between sublime and hypnotic. You either have the patience for this sort of stuff of you don’t.  One wonders how autobiographical “Ramada Inn” is (Young is now sober after years of drug and alcohol abuse).

Speaking of autobiographical, “Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” are two really great songs in which Young sings about his beginnings both as a young Canadian and as a newly minted songwriter hearing Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Both songs have a breezy, confident feel to them.  “Twisted Road” has my favorite lyric of the album in which Young describes Dylan as Hank Williams “chewing bubble gum.” It’s a great line that never fails to make me smile, no matter how many times I hear it.  “Twisted Road” is a bit odd because it’s strange to think of Neil Young as a Bob Dylan fan.  Young and Dylan are like Gods, the thought of them being fans is a strange concept, though ultimately it’s very endearing.

The best song on the album, in my opinion, is the moody “Walk Like A Giant.”   Even though it clocks in at just over 16 minutes, I’ve listened to it dozens of times, and on each listen I’m blown away at how sonically diverse it is. In the song, Young sings “I want to walk like a giant on the land” as far as I’m concerned with PSYCHEDELIC PILL that’s just what Neil Young is—a giant, peerless and at the top of his game.   It’s one long, strange trip that’s already become one of my all-time favorite songs: how can this be? Maybe I wouldn’t be so over-the-moon floored by this album if I hadn’t long ago written Neil Young off.

Special mention should be made of Young’s famous backing band.  People have criticized Crazy Horse over the years as not being a very “good” band.  And to an extent I can understand that.  They’ve always been a loose, almost garage-band kind of entity that might not work for every occasion, but here the band fits the material like a glove.  I can’t imagine any of these songs without them, each track a beautiful sonic assault.  Crazy Horse may be a blunt instrument, but they’re an instrument nonetheless, and here they’re utilized to great effect.

Lastly, I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to give PSYCHEDELIC PILL a listen but keep a few things in mind.  This album is about as anti-iTunes as one can get.  This isn’t a take a few sips/try it out a little at a time kind of album, you need to commit to sitting down and listening to it.  Yes, some of the songs are really long.  Yes, it’s a bit indulgent in a few places (“Ramada Inn” and “Drifting Back” probably could have been trimmed a smidge).  But overall it’s a fantastic album that every rock fan should check out.  PSYCHEDELIC PILL should be heard in a dark room with headphones. There’s been much discussion of the lost art of album making, and I would argue that people have lost the ability to listen to an album.  This is life changing, earth-shattering rock; have the decency to give it your full attention.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Neil Young Is More Bummed Out By Kurt Cobain’s Death Than You

Rock ‘n Roll icon Neil Young just released an autobiography called Waging Heavy Peace and some of the book’s more choice nuggets are becoming 30 second sounds bytes on the 24-hour news shows.   One such story found in the book (which I haven’t read yet) is about Young’s involvement in the final days (and death) of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain.   Cobain’s suicide note famously quoted Young’s 1979 song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”  Specifically the lyrics, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.”  The song was written for RUST NEVER SLEEPS and is about John Lyndon of The Sex Pistols abandoning his “Johnny Rotten” stage-persona.

Basically, a sad, sick kid heard Young’s song, which I’ve always interpreted as about creative death and rebirth, and took it more on face value.  That said, I can totally understand why Neil Young is still to this day shaken up by that.  What I didn’t know (until it came out in Young’s book) is that Young was actively reaching out to Cobain in the days leading up to his death.  Neil Young was recently interviewed by Classic Rock Magazine and reveled that “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me.  I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him only to play when he felt like it.”

Neil Young: Rust never sleeps.

Interestingly, Cobain is not the only dead rock star to have interpreted Young’s song on a more literal level.  In 1980, John Lennon told Playboy “I hate it[“Hey Hey, My My “] It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out.”  Lennon, ever the provocative bastard who was always willing to say what most people might only think, went on to add: “If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”

First off all, I think “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” is a fucking amazing song.  I can see how various people, at various stages of life (and metal status) might interpret it in different ways…but in general I think it’s a fantastic work of art that is pretty self-evident.  But if a person is in the wrong mindset (or worse looking for a more sinister reading of the song) can certainly find some really dark shit in Young’s tune.

That said, I personally think that  Young is right, in a creative sense it is better to burn out than fade away.  Lennon’s band The Beatles are a classic example of a group that burned out rather than fade away.  Their albums progressed and their sound evolved to such an astonishingly degree it can scarcely be believed (thankfully we have the records to prove it).   There were other factors at play, but I think part of the reason they broke up was over creative differences.

But I digress.  I know my opinion doesn’t matter, but I don’t think Neil Young should beat himself up too much about Cobain’s death, because it certainly wasn’t his fault.  I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have someone quote you in their suicide note.  All of this just puts Neil Young, and his work as an artist, into perspective and makes me really want to read Waging Heavy Peace.    

&

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,