Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37

By Joel Francis

The nice weather is giving me a different type of spring fever. I miss baseball and concerts and hanging out with friends. Thankfully, there is always music. Let’s dive back into the stacks.

Dave Douglas and High Risk – Dark Territory (2016) A few years ago, it felt like there was a trend, or maybe it was a micro-trend, of acoustic jazz musicians performing with electronic musicians. Pianist Brad Mehldau did it with drummer Mark Guiliana and trumpet player Dave Douglas collaborated with electronic artist Shigeto for two albums under the High Risk moniker. Both projects were mostly rewarding and enjoyable. I had the good fortune to see High Risk play at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in support of their first album. Watching Shigeto respond to Douglas’ playing, and then hearing how the rhythm section responded to their interplay was fascinating. I know there can be an easy temptation to assume electronic musicians pre-program beats and melodies and the acoustic musicians shape their music around that, but High Risk was a true live collaboration.  Dark Territory is the most recent High Risk album but I’m still holding onto hope that we might get another album from them at some point. I also hope more musicians explore this concept.

The Clash – Cut the Crap (1985)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 1 (2017)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 2/The Future Was Unwritten (2018) The final album from the seminal punk group The Clash is a mess, not even a hot mess. The conventional thinking is that solid songs were killed by poor (over)production. The good folks at Crooked Beat Records, a shop I used to visit regularly when I had relatives in Washington, D.C., tested this theory by rounding up several local bands to put their spin on the material written after guitarist Mick Jones was fired from the band and manager Bernie Rhodes assumed more control over the group’s music. It looks solid on paper and in truth it’s not bad on record, either. However, the thesis doesn’t hold up for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think all of the songs are as strong as they could be. Joe Strummer didn’t have Jones there to bounce ideas off and push him to improve the material. Secondly, the Clash are a hard band to cover. Sure, you can get the chords right and nail the lyrics, but the non-musical elements – the hunger, the spirit, the righteousness – can’t be taught or copied. You either have them or you don’t. A lot of big-name acts learned this the hard way on the disastrous Burning London tribute album back in 1999. 

Recutting the Crap is best when Cut the Crap is its worst; the lesser known, underdeveloped materials. The tribute runs into problems on “This Is England,” easily the best song on Cut the Crap, and the bonus album of songs that could have been Clash songs. Joe Strummer’s solo contributions to soundtracks and his collaborations with Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Here, the original material is so strong that the covers, however well-intentioned, come off as pale covers.

Both Cut the Crap and Recutting the Crap are interesting endeavors, but each fall short of the goal line for different reasons.

Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) The NYC noise rockers found the perfect balance between their early indie releases and having a major label budget (and promotion) on Dirty, their seventh album. “Sugar Kane” and “Wish Fulfillment” strike the balance between melody and discord. “Youth Against Fascism” and “Chapel Hill” have a strong political message as urgent and unruly as what Rage Against the Machine was doing at the time (albeit with a different musical approach). Then there are savage cuts like “Drunken Butterfly” and “Purr” that no doubt confounded the record label executives. The deluxe edition I own contains two extra LPs containing b-sides and rehearsal tracks. A cover of Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body” sung by Kim Gordon picks up the same feminist string as the Dirty album track“Swimsuit Issue.” A sideways tribute to the New York Dolls on “Personality Crisis” is a hoot. The works-in-progress recordings fill out the story of Dirty, but they’re not interesting enough on their own to keep me turning back to them as often as the album.

Dirty is my favorite major-label era Sonic Youth album. It’s likely that even casual Sonic Youth fans will get Dirty frequently. Anyone nostalgic for the early ‘90s alt-rock scene should check it out as well.

John Coltrane – Ballads (1963) Entire books and doctoral theses have been written about John Coltrane’s genius. I’m not sure I have anything to add, except to say that hearing Coltrane perform with his classic quartet – and especially McCoy Tyner, who we talked about way back on Day 2, is always a deep pleasure. Listening to him hold back the sheets of sound for this slower material provides yet another layer of reward. Put this on after a stressful day for the perfect lull in the storm.

U2 – Pop (1997) U2’s PopMart tour marked the first time I saw the band in concert, so I’m a little biased toward this album. Pop also feels like the last moment that U2 stopped trying to be U2 and while I enjoy several of their albums after this, they also feel very safe and calculated. At the time it came out, recording for the album ran late, cutting into tour rehearsal time and resulting in a rush-released product. You can still hear the effects of this today because the album feels disjointed. I think listening to Pop on vinyl improves the experience because there are forced pauses in the music between sides. The first side contains the opening three hard dance songs. More gentle, acoustic numbers comprise most of the second side, segueing into the most experimental (and weakest) material on the third side (“Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion”). Pop ends with three atmospheric, contemplative tracks on the final side. Being able to concentrate on one style of song at a time gives the album an extended EP feel, which helps it. Regardless how you feel about Pop, the sound of U2 swinging for the fences and missing here is still vastly preferable to the weak bunts and sacrifice fly balls they’ve been serving up for the most part ever since.

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (2015) The seventh album from the Portland, Ore., indie rockers was also the first release that they sounded like themselves for a while. They went all-in on the proggy concept album “The Hazards of Love,” then responded with the very poppy and folky The King is Dead (which we discussed back on Day 18). Finally, the pendulum arrived back in the middle for this excellent release. Several moments, including “Cavalry Captain” and “Mistral,” recall the high points of their early albums. They break the fourth wall on opening number “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which comes across as a more academic (and less fun) version of “The Wilco Song,” only with references to Axe shampoo. The centerpiece is “12/17/12,” a response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that leaves me with a lump in my throat every time. This is a good place to start if you are curious about the band. Longtime Decemberists fans will find much to love here as well.

The White Stripes – The White Stripes XX (2019) Arriving just in time for the 20th anniversary of the White Stripes’ debut album, this look back includes a record of studio outtakes from the album’s studio recording sessions, and a set from the duo’s tour opening for Pavement. (A DVD documents an additional show from that year.) The platter of outtakes reveal a couple items of curiosity. The is an early version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which wouldn’t appear until the band’s third album. The smoking version of “Little Red Book” is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. The most surprising thing about the live set is that it exists at all. If you listened to the first season of the Striped podcast, you may remember that the Stripes were essentially driving themselves to these shows and losing money in doing so. It’s amazing that Jack and Meg had the money and foresight to roll tape on these gigs at all. The other revelation is how fully formed their sound is, right off the bat. The recording is a little distant, but the essence of the band that ended up playing arenas around the world is very present on this tiny club stage. Ultimately, there’s nothing here that replaces the raw, honest goodness of the White Stripes’ first album (with the exception of that “Little Red Book.” Yowza!) but the material here is the perfect complement. A dig through the detritus for those who want it.